Longtime coach LeRoy Walker made history at the 1976 Summer Olympics, becoming the first black coach of an American Olympic team. Walker led the U.S. men's track and field team to medal in 19 different events, collecting six gold medals. Walker was named president of the United States Olympic Committee in 1992, becoming the first African American ever named to that post. He died in Durham, North Carolina, in 2012.
LeRoy T. Walker was born on June 14, 1918, in Atlanta, Georgia. The grandson of slaves and the youngest of 13 children born to Willie and Mary Walker, LeRoy Walker, a well regarded athlete himself, went on to become one of the most successful track coaches in history, steering the career of 40 national champions and 12 Olympians.
Born into a family whose finances were not always certain, Walker spent a portion of his youth in New York City's Harlem neighborhood, where he moved to live with his older brother, Joe, following the death of their father. To a large degree, Joe, who owned a window washing business and a small chain of barbeque restaurants, became a father figure to his younger brother after Willie Walker's death. Not only did he employ LeRoy, he often pushed him to excel.
Foray into Athletics
In the 1930s, LeRoy Walker returned to the South to attend Benedict College in Columbia, South Carolina. There, Walker, an honor student and the first of his family to attend college, shined as an athlete. He played basketball and earned national attention as a sprinter, despite the fact that the school didn't have a formal track team. Equally impressive was what he did on the football field. Having never played the sport in high school, Walker tried out for the team on a dare during his junior year. When the team's starting quarterback went down, Walker filled in, leading the club to a conference championship en route to All-America honors—becoming the college's first player to receive that recognition.
Walker graduated from Benedict in 1940, thereafter moving back north to earn a master's from Columbia University in 1941. Walker then returned to Benedict, where he was offered the position of heading the college's new physical education department.
Recognition for Coaching
In 1945, Walker moved again, this time to take over as track coach at North Carolina Central University. There, he began to gain recognition for his coaching talents, working closely with athletes like Olympian hurler Lee Calhoun. Walker's presence at NCCU was so revered, in fact, that he would later serve as chancellor of the college.
In 1957, Walker completed his doctorate in exercise physiology and biomechanics at New York University, sparking an incredible professional run for the famed coach. Between 1960 and 1972, Walker served as a coach or consultant for a number of foreign Olympic teams. He then embarked upon a three-year stint as chairman of the Amateur Athletic Union of the United States' men's track and field committee.
At the 1976 Summer Olympic Games in Montreal, Walker made history as the first black coach of an American Olympic team. At the Games, Walker coached the U.S. men's track and field team, who medaled in 19 different events and ultimately collected six gold medals. Successfully steering the Olympic Festival to NCCU one year, Walker ultimately brought an unmatched level of prominence to the university with his Olympic successes and books.
Awards and Honors
Walker was inducted into the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame in 1987 and named president of the United States Olympic Committee in 1992—becoming the first African American to earn that post. The position was capped off four years later with the Summer Olympics in Atlanta, where he led the 645-member U.S. delegation into the Centennial Olympic Stadium as part of the opening festivities. Three years after Atlanta, Walker presided over the 1999 Special Olympic World Games in North Carolina.
Walker received the Olympic Order, the highest honor awarded by the International Olympic Committee, for his Olympic successes, as well as 15 honorary degrees. Throughout his career, however, Walker maintained an air of modesty regarding his significance in the African-American community. Following his appointment as president of the U.S. Olympic Committee, he stated, "[Winston] Churchill once said it's not enough to prepare yourself to do your best. You must prepare yourself to do what's required. I want people to know this can happen. On the other hand, if they look at my record, you wouldn't think I've achieved this because I am black."
In an interview with The Associated Press in 199, Walker said that he preferred to be called "coach," explaining, "When you call me that, it means you're my friend. That means you've known me for a long time. As coaches, we're in the community somehow. So I like the word 'coach.' It gives a different connotation than a Ph.D. degree."
LeRoy Walker died in Durham, North Carolina, on April 23, 2012, at the age of 93.
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