Friday, July 12, 2024

Aime Alley Card (via Facebook)

Aime Alley Card is an editor for the Pangyrus literary magazine, board member of the Women’s National Book Association in Boston, author of a breast cancer memoir and now of “The Tigerbelles” – the story of eight Black students in the Arizona State University girl’s track team and their revolutionary 1960s Olympic medals. “I was always surprised when other people didn’t know about them,” Card said of the runners. “I just wanted other people to be inspired by them as much as I have been.”

Card, a Cambridge resident, is joined by fellow Cantabrigian and sports journalist Melissa Ludtke when she speaks Tuesday at an event co-hosted by GrubStreet and Porter Square Books in Boston. We spoke with her on Jan. 1 over Zoom; this conversation was edited for length and clarity.

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What inspired you to begin writing “The Tigerbelles”?

I love an inspirational sports story, and I feel like there’s room for more women’s sports stories. As for the Tigerbelles, I grew up knowing this story because my grandfather was a track coach at that time and was friends with Ed Temple, the Tigerbelles’ coach. It was just one of those stories that I always saw as the standard for athletic achievement. As I started thinking about them more deeply, the more I uncovered their story and all the individuals behind the team, I was just more and more drawn into it.

What do you think makes them so special?

The Tigerbelles had to overcome so much adversity, and not just athletically. They were a team of student athletes, and all of them on this team were the first people in their families to go to college. They were dealing with that, and they were dealing with the Jim Crow segregation laws in the South at the time. Their friends were beginning to protest and doing sit-ins in Nashville, and they couldn’t join or they would lose their athletic eligibility. A lot of them dealt with their own personal issues as well, such as poverty in their family or challenging family situations in general. The way each individual was able to overcome their own obstacles and work together as a team to bring each other up is inspiring on so many different levels.

What adversity did each Tigerbelle face?

Wilma Rudolph was the most famous because she won three gold medals in the Olympics, which was an incredible feat. Even more impressively, she had polio when she was a child – her legs were in braces until she was 9 and she made her first Olympics when she was 16. To go from your legs being in braces to being able to run and compete on that elite stage and in such a short amount of time, and to actually win a bronze medal as she did that year, is just incredible. Her family was also impoverished, and just going to school was a challenge for her. 

Willye White lived in Money, Mississippi, and worked in the fields when she was young. She was 16 when Emmett Till was murdered, and was in that town when that happened. When they were training and trying out for the 1956 Olympics, nobody thought she was going to make it because it was her first year – they thought she was just trying out for the juniors. Her motivation to go to the Olympics was that she didn’t want to go home and work in the fields in that town. She felt like she was jumping for her life. She ended up making the team and won a silver medal that year when she was just 16. 

Every person on the team had their own story of how they got there. Together as a team, they made each other better and learned how to support each other as teammates. They were looking out for each other in every aspect of their lives.

Did the Tigerbelles face discrimination during the competitive season?

Absolutely. When they went to away meets they had to be careful about where they stopped. They often couldn’t use public bathrooms, and they would have to have the cafeteria pack lunches for them in advance. Their school also didn’t have a lot of funding – female athletics didn’t have a lot of funding in general. They couldn’t afford to spend the night in a hotel, and would have to drive straight through and end up competing against people in national events who could afford to stop and stay in a hotel and even get there a few days early to train and practice.

One time, they had to go to Texas and one of their bus drivers refused to drive them because there were both white and black students on the team. They had to wait for another driver to come and lost hours of track time. There were constant pressures like that. They struggled especially with deciding whether they were willing to risk their eligibility to protest such inequities. Eventually, they decided that the way they chose to fight back was to show how excellent they can be, and to prove that they can be better than anyone else.

And why do you think that it’s important that people learn their story?

1960 was the first televised Olympics, so that was when people started realizing it was okay for women to be athletes. At the time, some people didn’t really think it was safe for women to run. The Tigerbelles opened up the floodgates for women participating in the sport. As a young girl, my aunt lived on campus at Vanderbilt, where my grandfather taught, and he would invite the Tigerbelles to come run on the track because theirs didn’t go all the way around. Whenever my aunt knew the Tigerbelles were coming, she would run over herself and just watch them in person. Her brother was allowed to be on a track team; at the time, little girls were supposed to wear dresses. For her to know “This is possible, women are running and this is something I can do” was meaningful. It opened up track programs all over the country. It’s inspirational for any young person who is going through challenges in their lives to see how other people got through it and succeeded despite all the forces against them. 

  • Aime Alley Card will be in conversation with Melissa Ludtke, author and former Sports Illustrated journalist, at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Porter Square Books: Boston Edition, 50 Liberty Drive, Boston. Registration and more information can be accessed here.