Martha Watson: Just another Tigerbelle legend

Being great isn’t easy. From being an Olympian four times over to being a crack blackjack dealer serving chips to Diana Ross and Richard Pryor at Caesars Palace to working in children’s theater, Martha Watson has made the difficult appear seamless. She went from prep phenom to carving out a USA Track and Field Hall of Fame career.

In a 16-year career, Watson collected eight U.S. titles in the long jump. For three straight years: 1973, 1974, and 1975, Watson was the dominant female long jumper in the United States, ranking No. 1 in the country. Oh yeah, she could run as well as she could jump, earning a spot on the U.S. 4×100 relay teams at the 1972 and 1976 Olympics.

Pretty badass stuff. Reflecting on her track and field achievements, Watson said she never saw being inducted in the Hall of Fame coming down the pipeline.

That’s because the honor really wasn’t something that Watson paid attention to or thought about. There were two central things Watson cared about when she got into this track and field stuff. That was making the Olympics and being part of the legendary Tennessee State Tigerbelles, perhaps the greatest assemblage ever of track and field Olympians.

Making any kind of Hall of Fame list was nowhere near on Watson’s radar when it came to her to-do list.

“I didn’t really think about it,” Watson said. “I just wanted to run because I loved the sport. I loved what I was doing. I had a lot of fun doing it. I never thought about, ‘Oh, I want to be in the Hall of Fame.’ I thought about I wanted to be an Olympian. I wanted to be a Tigerbelle. Those were the goals that I had, but the Hall of Fame…I didn’t think about that. That did happen but it was not anything that I wished or planned to be.”

The Future is Now 

The plan for Watson coming out of Long Beach Poly High School was to qualify for her first Olympics, which she did with a second-place finish at the U.S. Olympic Trials behind Willye B. White, another Tigerbelle great. The other objective for Watson was to take her jumping skills to Tennessee State University (originally Tennessee Agricultural and Industrial State Normal School for Negroes) where Ed Temple and the Tigerbelle Olympic factory were in full flow.

White, Lucinda Williams, Mae Faggs, Isabelle Daniels, and Wilma Rudolph had already laid down the groundwork for up-and-coming student-athletes like Watson. Edith McGuire and Wyomia Tyus, along with Watson, would stoke the flames of that tradition of greatness. McGuire set an Olympic record in the 200 meters at the 1964 Summer Games. Tyus is the first person to win gold medals in back-to-back Olympics (1964 and 1968).

The Tigebelles were more than just a group of great runners; they were history-makers, Watson said.

“A lot of the kids now, as far back as they’ll go is Jackie Joyner Kersee or FloJo (Florence Griffith Joyner), maybe not even back far; Marion Jones. I don’t think they know very much about history,” Watson said.

“I think that’s a sad thing that they don’t know about Wilma and they don’t her accomplishments,” Watson added. “And if they looked at her time, she was running 11 flat in 1960. They’re still running 11 flat. She was running on cinder tracks. Her track shoes probably weighed a pound apiece. When you talk about the accomplishments of some of these athletes…Wilma, if she was here,  she would probably be right in the mix again. But they don’t know who she is.”

It takes a special kind of athlete to qualify for the Olympics one time. To do it four times as Watson did is the stuff of legends. Her recipe?

“Practice,” Watson said. “If you’re going to do something you have to give it your best effort. I took pride in what I did.”

When it comes to the great American female long jumper in the history of track and field, the list is short and sweet.

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Joyner-Kersee, owner of the American and world record in the long jump, made the 1980s and mid-1990s her own personal playground in that event. White, who set the American record multiple times over the course of her USA Track and Field Hall of Fame career, was America’s first great female long jumper. More recently, Brittney Reece has carried the mantle as the nation’s premier long jumper.

Watson’s place in history was nipping at the heels of White for the greater part of her 16-year run as a track and field athlete. White had already made two Olympic teams (1956, 1960) by the time Watson arrived on the scene and was in the midst of a dominant run as the best long jumper around.

Being a Tigerbelle 

But the five-time Olympian got a serious run for her money for the national crown from Watson. Watson challenged White in the 1964 U.S. Olympic Trials, coming up with a leap of 21 feet and three inches for second place. Watson ended the meet just one inch shy of White’s 21 feet, four-inch mark for first place. White was the No. 1 long jumper in the United States at that time.

Watson, 17 at that time, was just happy to earn herself a trip to the 1964 Tokyo Summer Olympics. In doing so, Watson became the third-youngest American athlete to make a United States Olympic team. White and Carol Lewis beat her on this tab. Watson finished out of the running for any medal after not making it to the finals.

That did little to hamper her accomplishment or what she would further achieve in the long jump. After her experience at the 1964 Summer Games, Watson kept putting in the work to get better. That meant getting in some intense training under the watchful eye of Temple.

“Coach Temple had some teams in the past that were very competitive,” Watson said. “We would always have Blue and White squad meets because at that time there was no collegiate competition. So, he would divide us into two squads-the Blue team and the White team- and we would have a track meet. That created a little rivalry while we were running because we wanted to win. But some of his older teams sold more wolf tickets and got in each other faces. We worked. We kept the flag high.”

Besides her 1964 inclusion, Watson also represented the United States at 1968, 1972, and 1976 Olympic Games. Her versatility in the sprints as well as in the jumping events allowed Watson to make her mark on the track and field world.

Martha Watson and members of the Tennessee State Tigerbelles. Photo courtesy of Tennessee State University

But that came with a price. Because of the national and global success that the Tigerbelles had achieved under Temple, Watson said she felt the heat to measure up to the lofty standards that were already established within the TSU track and field program.

“You were a Tigerbelle,” Watson said. “You were expected to do well. There weren’t any excuses. If you were racing and it was close, he (Temple) wouldn’t go down there and fight for you, because you should have won. If it’s close, he said, ‘I’m not fighting for you. You’re supposed to fight for that on the track.’”

Just how high were the standards for the Tigerbelles? Glowingly high. Under Temple, who served as head coach of the women’s track and field team from 1950 to 1994, the Tigerbelles captured 23 Olympic medals. Mediocrity was something that was simply unbecoming of a Tigerbelle.

“There were no photo finishes at that time in track,” Watson said. “He would say, ‘You’re a Tigerbelle. There should not be a question. You should be in the front. There shouldn’t be anybody in front of you. It shouldn’t be close.’ That’s why we trained and practiced. We practiced everything. We practiced conditioning. Sometimes that’s what it took. We did everything. Every aspect of the race, we were prepared for.”

Wilma’s Lingering Legacy  

Watson wound up at Tennessee State in large part because of the reputation of its women’s track and field team. Rudolph being a heralded alum didn’t hurt. Rudolph’s gold medal trifecta at the 1960 Rome Olympics made her an international hero. Her triumphant performance at the Rome Games was not lost on Watson who saw the Tigerbelle star do more than just win gold medals in the 100 meters, 200 meters and 4×100 relay.

That part was just a nice fitting bow wrapped around what Rudolph managed to overcome in her life. Brushes with segregation in her hometown of Clarksville, Tennessee, as well as fighting off polio, a disease that left her unable to walk as a child, and motherhood, turned Rudolph’s real-life juggling act into a global fairy-tale.

Wilma Rudolph
The great Wilma Rudolph,, seen here coming across the finish line in first place during a track meet in Amersterdam on Sept. 15, 1960, was someome that Martha Watson admired. Photo by Joop van Bilsen/Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons

So, when Watson got an opportunity to meet Rudolph in person after she ran in the Los Angeles Times Games at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum before she set off to go to school at Tennessee State, she was beyond excited.

“I watched her run,” said Watson. “When she won, I congratulated her. We shook hands and all that. I don’t think she really remembered that meeting because I didn’t really mean for her to know that my name was Martha and that I was going to school in Tennessee.”

Watson’s giddiness over Rudolph spilled over whenever the three-time gold medal winner would come back, visit and speak to a new crop of Tigerbelles.

“She [Rudolph] came to school to visit. She always came to visit the freshmen,” Watson said. “She was a special lady. She just came down. She lived in Clarksville, which I think was maybe about 30 or 40 miles from Nashville. I don’t know if Mr. Temple asked her to come…after she was coming to see him she would come to see us and talked to us about the program, talked to us about her Olympic experiences. She was everybody’s idol at that time. Wilma Rudolph was the person you wanted to pattern after because of all of her success as an athlete. You just wanted to be like her.”

With the newness from the 1964 Olympics out of the way, the next four years got Watson ready to be in a position to take the top prize at the 1968 Olympic Trials.

Coming Out on Top

Watson turned back the clock on White at the 1968 U.S. Olympic Trials, besting her U.S. teammate with a jump of 21 feet and three-quarters of an inch to represent America as the No. 1 long jumper at the Summer Games. White settled for second place with a jump of 21 feet. Both women (Watson finished 10th) failed to medal at the Mexico City Olympics.

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For Watson, things would only get better. In the prime of her career, Watson hit her stride by the time the 1972 Olympics rolled around. Though she did not make the finals again at the Munich Games, Watson (20 feet, 1 ½ inch) handed White (20 feet, 1 ¼ inch) another defeat at the U.S. Olympic Trials to be America’s top long jumper.

After finishing fifth in the 100 at the Olympic Trials, Watson also made the U.S. team as a member of the country’s 4 x100 relay squad. The Americans did not make the medal cut at the 1972 Olympics.

By this time, Watson had established herself as the best of the best in the long jump, ranking No. 1 in the United States (1973), according to Track and Field News. This seemed to kick off a string of dominant success for Watson, who recorded six national championships (1973, 1974, 1975 USA Outdoors; 1974, 1975, 1976 Indoors) in the long jump from 1973 to 1976.

Watson’s run at Olympic glory concluded after the 1976 Summer Games. Watson made her fourth Olympic team, but found herself in a place she wasn’t accustomed to, landing a third-place showing at the Olympic Trials with a long jump of 21 feet, six inches. Watson was inducted into the USA Track and Field Hall of Fame in 1987.

Featured Image: Four-time Olympian Martha Watson relaxing with her father, Timothy Watson. Courtesy photo

5 thoughts on “Martha Watson: Just another Tigerbelle legend

  1. Martha set a great example for all the track & field female athletes to follow. As a graduate student at UCLA, I invited her in 1981 to share her story with student-athletes and she did a magnificent job. Blessings to her, and she is right about those who have after her, they don’t know the history. We all need to dedicate ourselves to doing a better job of documenting, archiving, and sharing our stories on all platforms.

    Oscar Edwards

  2. Wonderful article on MY teammate. “Keep it coming, my brother.”

    1. Thank you Dennis. You brought back many fond memories. I cherish my days at Tennessee State.

      1. Martha, hope our good wishes get to you. Barbara and I have thought of you often over the last hundred years or so since we lived next door on Conchita Street. Of course with the Olympics in the news now your name is top of mind for us. We’re retired now and living in Florida (Jonathan Winters called it God’s waiting room) but we’re still lucid enough to remember our Las Vegas days. I actually got to jog through the desert with THE Martha Watson and she was so kind…..she didn’t run off and leave me in her dust. Your smile and your sense of humor are some of our best memories.

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