Born on February 25, 1947, in Madera, California, Lee Evans won AAU and NCAA titles in his signature 400-meter race for the San José State University track team. At the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City, he earned gold medals with world-record times in the 400-meter and the 4-by-400 relay events. Evans went on to a lengthy career as a track coach for several African and Middle Eastern Olympic teams.
Lee Edward Evans was born on February 25, 1947, in Madera, California. Growing up in poverty, he shared a bed with two brothers and began picking cotton and grapes in the San Joaquin Valley fields at an early age to earn money for the family.
Drawing athletic inspiration from his older brother, Doug, a high school All-American in football, Evans was undefeated during his track career at Overfelt High School in San Jose, California.
Evans continued his run of success after enrolling at San José City Junior College, earning a surprising win in the 400-meter race at the 1966 Amateur Athletic Union championships. He transferred to San José State University, fitting right in with the elite athletes of coach Bud Winter's track-and-field team.
Employing a gritty, unorthodox running style, Evans won the AAU 400 meters in each of the next three years, and took the gold medal in the event at the 1967 Pan-Am Games. In 1968, he won the National Collegiate Athletic Association title and was named to the U.S. Olympic team for that year's Games in Mexico City after running the 400 meters in a world-record time of 44.06 seconds at the U.S. trials.
Evans's Olympic experience nearly ended before he had the chance to compete; when San José State teammates Tommie Smith and John Carlos were thrown out of the Games for their infamous "black power" salute, Evans was so incensed he almost quit before Carlos reasoned with him to stay. Evans then was nearly beaten by fellow American Larry James in the 400-meter finals, but he pulled ahead to win the gold with a new world-record time of 43.86 seconds.
Evans won a second gold medal as a member of the 4-by-400-meter relay team, which also established a world record with its time of 2:56.16. Keeping in spirit with the tone set by their banished teammates, the gold medalists took the medal stand wearing Black Panther-style black berets, though they took them off for the national anthem.
After graduating from San José State in 1970, Evans served as a cross-country and track-and-field coach for his alma mater for two years. He won a fifth AAU title in 1972, followed by two years in the professional International Track Association.
Evans then embarked on a lengthy international coaching career, overseeing the Olympic track-and-field programs for Nigeria, Cameroon, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, among other countries. Along the way, he was honored for his accomplishments with induction to the USA Track and Field Hall of Fame in 1983, and the Olympic Hall of Fame in 1989.
Late in his career, Evans returned to the United States to accept coaching positions at the University of South Alabama and the University of Washington. He was diagnosed with a brain tumor in December 2012, but fully recovered after undergoing surgery.
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