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Whether or not Reese wins gold, Mississippi’s long jump history is golden

Brittney Reese of Gulfport and Ole Miss goes for Olympic gold Monday in Tokyo, still another chapter in Mississippi’s long and rich history of long jumping excellence.

We are often called a football state because so many of our small-town heroes go on to record-setting pro football stardom. In recent years, we have been more of a baseball state because of our well-documented college baseball excellence.

But, on a global basis, we probably should be known more as a long jumping state. Again, our history in the event is incredibly rich, including Reese, perhaps the most decorated Mississippi long jumper of all – which is saying something. She is a seven-time world champion, a 13-time national champ. She has won both gold and silver Olympic medals. She was an NCAA champion at Ole Miss. At 34, she is competing in her fourth Olympics – and that’s not even the most by a Mississippi woman.

Rick Cleveland

The late Willye B. White holds that distinction – and if you’ve never heard of White, here’s a quick history lesson. Born on New Year’s Eve, 1939, in the Delta town of Money, she was raised by share-cropping grandparents. At 10, as a fourth grader, she began competing and winning ribbons for her high school track team. She did this while spending many days picking cotton for money to help feed her family.

She did it all: sprinted, long-jumped, high-jumped and as a young teen often won track meets by herself. That’s right: She accumulated more points than many other teams while competing for Broad Street High in Greenwood.

And here is one of my favorite stories in all of Mississippi sports: In 1956, at 16, White competed in the Olympics at Melbourne, winning the silver medal in the long jump. Imagine: 16  years young, a 10th grader – from one of the poorest towns, in one of the poorest counties in the poorest state in the U.S. – and she won the first U.S. Olympic women’s long jump medal in history.

How in the world did she accomplish that?

“A dream without a plan is just a wish,” White once said.

Willye B. White clearly had a plan. So did Larry Myricks and Ralph Boston, two more Mississippi long jumpers to claim international fame.

Myricks is the more recent. From Clinton and Mississippi College, Myricks, as Reese, was coached by Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame coach Joe Walker. He was a four-time national champion and four-time Olympian who persevered despite terrible Olympic luck. In 1976, at Montreal, Myricks suffered a broken foot in warm-ups that knocked him out of the Olympics. In his prime, in 1980, he was supposed to compete in the Moscow Olympics, but the U.S. boycotted the games. In 1984, at Los Angeles, he finished in fourth place, just inches away from a medal. Here’s perseverance: In 1988, at age 32, he won the bronze medal with a leap of 27 feet, one inch.

Boston, from Laurel, gained international acclaim in 1960 when he broke the long jump world record that had been held for 25 years by none other than the incomparable Jesse Owens. Boston has the complete Olympic collection of medals: gold (1960 at Rome), silver (1964 at Tokyo) and bronze (1968 at Mexico City).

Jesse Owens (left) and Ralph Boston after Boston broke Owens’ 25-year-old long jump world record. (MSHOF archives)

Boston remains one of the great gentlemen in Mississippi sports history, which was evident back in 1968 at Mexico City when Boston won the bronze and Bob Beamon won the gold with a historic leap of  29 feet, 2.5 inches, breaking the world record by a seemingly impossible two feet. Boston didn’t tell me this story; Bob Beamon did, when he came through Jackson years ago and agreed to an interview.

“What people don’t know is that I wouldn’t have done that if it hadn’t been for Ralph Boston,” Beamon told me. “I fouled on my first two attempts and was about to get disqualified when Ralph told me I needed to adjust my footwork leading up to my takeoff. I figured I had better listen to the master, and I did. The rest, as they say, is history. I owe a lot to Ralph Boston.”

The next day, I called Boston and recounted Beamon’s telling. Boston corroborated the story and then laughed. “He beat me by two feet,” Boston said. “That’s a heck of a way to treat your teacher. If you see Bob again, tell him I am waiting for my check.”

Boston tells another of my favorite Mississippi sports stories, which brings us back to Willye B. White, who died far too young in 2007 at age 68. Boston knew White well. They competed for the U.S. in three straight Olympiads.

Once, when we were talking about White, Boston asked me: “Do you know there was someone in her high school class at Greenwood who became more famous than her?”

I did not.

“Ever hear of Morgan Freeman?” Boston said, chuckling.

Same school, same time?

“Yes,” Boston said. “I was with Morgan one time and I asked him if he ran track in high school. Morgan said he did not. He said he knew if he ran track, he would have had to run against Willye B. White. Morgan said he didn’t want to lose to a girl.”

This article first appeared on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.