CLARKSVILLE – While it is an ongoing mystery whether the 2020 Summer Olympics – the massive international spectacle that COVID-19 punted into this summer – actually will begin on the rescheduled date of July 23, there is no question that Clarksville has two permanent reminders of past Olympic glory.
Those reminders are life-sized statues of two amazing hometown athletes, runner Wilma Rudolph and basketball player and coach Pat Head Summitt. Neither was a likely candidate for success in the Olympics.
In fact, the deck seemed stacked against Rudolph from the start. She was born prematurely and weighed only 4.5 pounds, the 20th of her father’s 22 children in a blended family where money was scarce.
At age 4, she contracted pneumonia, and polio paralyzed her left leg. Her mother took her back and forth to Nashville for treatment, the paralysis eased and a leg brace helped her walk by age 8. She never stopped.
“My doctors told me I’d never walk again. My mother told me I would. I believed my mother,” Rudolph said, according to literature from Visit Clarksville, the organization that promotes visitation to this city where the Red River flows into the Cumberland River.
She walked and then ran – very well and very fast. As a high school track and basketball athlete, she caught the eye of Ed Temple, who himself became a legendary track coach at Tennessee State University. Under Temple’s guidance, Rudolph competed in the 1956 Olympic Games in Melbourne, Australia. She was 16, the youngest member of the U.S. track and field team, and she won a bronze medal on the 400-meter relay team.
Melbourne’s bronze was a prelude to what Rudolph accomplished in 1960 at the Olympics in Rome. She became the first American woman to win three gold medals – again on the 400-meter relay team and as a sprinter in the 100-meter and 200-meter events.
Back home, the conquering heroine recorded another victory.
The restrictions of the Jim Crow South were quite alive, but Rudolph insisted that her homecoming parade and banquet be desegregated. She prevailed, and the celebration became the first such municipal event in Clarksville’s history.
A statue of Rudolph in full stride secures her legacy outside the Wilma Rudolph Event Center at the edge of Liberty Park. She died in 1994 after being diagnosed with a brain tumor.
It was injury, not disease, that should have kept Pat Summitt from seeing Olympic action. She had earned All-America honors on the University of Tennessee-Martin women’s basketball team and had Olympic dreams, but a blown-out knee (a torn ACL) ended her senior year.
She graduated, and in one of the grandest stories in collegiate basketball, became the head coach of the University of Tennessee Lady Vols at the age of 22. This was long before women’s basketball rose to its current status, a status Summit herself helped guarantee.
Two years into her coaching career, she set out to rehabilitate her knee and make the Olympic team. She succeeded and at age 24 was the oldest member of the team that took the silver medal at the 1976 Montreal Games. She was a co-captain of that team.
The U.S. boycotted the 1980 Moscow Games, but Summitt was back in Olympic action at the 1984 Los Angeles Games, this time as head coach. That made her the first person to both play for and coach U.S. Olympic basketball teams.
She and her team won the gold medal in Los Angeles, and she already was honing her skill with the Pat Summitt “look.” Getting that piercing look spoke volumes to players and referees alike.
Her resume at her full-time job at UT is one of the most storied in all sports. Her Lady Vols won eight national championships, she was the first NCAA coach to win 1,000 games and she was the NCAA Coach of the Year seven times.
The Summitt statue is at the other end of Liberty Park from the Wilma Rudolph statue on a pleasant promenade along the Cumberland River. At nearby McGregor Park is another opportunity for light exercise, the 1.5-mile Cumberland RiverWalk. That trail connects to the Upland Trail that leads you into the downtown commercial district.
If you explore in that direction, you can enjoy a craft beer at Strawberry Alley Ale Works, learn more local history at the Customs House Museum and find a third bronze statue of a hometown celebrity.
That one is of Frank Sutton. You say you don’t recognize Sutton’s name? His TV and movie acting credentials are extensive, and you’ll likely recognize his most famous character – Sgt. Vince Carter in the TV comedy “Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.”
Enjoy Tom Adkinson’s Tennessee Traveler destination articles the second and fourth Friday every month. Adkinson, author of “100 Things To Do in Nashville Before You Die,” is a Marco Polo member of SATW, the Society of American Travel Writers.