Olympic great blends her faith with track and field

Chandra Cheeseborough loves track and field. But she loves her God more. The Tennessee State University director of track and field has been involved in track and field for as long as she can remember. She’s been pretty good at it too, going from prep star at Ribault High School in Jacksonville, Florida to becoming a three-time Olympian.

As fantastic as a career she has had in track and field, Cheeseborough’s devotion to doing the Lord’s work takes priority over everything else in her life. Winning souls mean a whole more to Cheeseborough these days than the dominant reign she once had as one of the world’s top 400-meter runners. She wears her faith on her sleeves.

Growing up as a church-going young lady, Cheeseborough is a firm Bible-believing Christian today.

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Whenever she feels the need to, Cheeseborough covers her student-athletes at TSU with prayer. As strong as her zeal was during her track and field heyday to run faster than anyone else, winning souls now tug at her heartstrings with more urgency. Her passion for others to know Christ made a way for her to find time to read biblical scriptures to comfort the great Wilma Rudolph as she lay in a hospital bed in the waning moments of her beautiful life.

Serving others is what Cheeseborough wants her legacy to be. On the track, where she became one of the last in the line of great runners that the great Ed Temple produced, Cheeseborough was just as passionate. She went from being a budding high school phenom to a world-class sprinter in little time.

As a result, the Tigerbelle alum ran her way right into the USA Track and Field Hall of Fame.

Cheeseborough was just a teenager making the rounds on the track and field circuit when her star lit up the 1975 Pan American Games. All she did was upset Pam Jiles, the U.S. top runner in the 200 meters with an American record time of 22.77 seconds, and win a gold medal in the 4×100 relay.

As a 16-year-old high school student, the international stage proved it wasn’t too big for the “Cheese” as Temple lovingly used to call her. But her victory in the 200 didn’t come without a major stir.

Jiles and Cheeseborough had battled to the tape in a photo finish. Jiles was awarded the gold medal. Cheeseborough was a sure lock for second-place. Everyone seemed to be okay with the outcome, all except for one photographer who saw something different from his lens.

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Officials took another look at the photo finish. Cheeseborough had nipped Jiles with her lean at the tape. Cheeseborough was named the official winner. Jiles was left with the indignation of having to part ways with a gold medal she thought she had won.

Jiles nor Temple was particularly happy about the reversed outcome.

“I felt the whole affair forced a bad situation,” Temple stated in his book, “Only the Pure in Heart Survive. “Jiles was taken off of the stand and shown the replay. In tears, she had to give the gold medal to Cheese.”

Despite the hoopla around that 200-meter conclusion, the Pan American Games turned out to be the perfect platform for Cheeseborough to launch her decorated track and field career. She won two gold medals at the Pan American Games. From there, it was nothing but upward progress for Cheeseborough.

At 17, Cheeseborough made the first of her three Olympic teams (1976, 1980, and 1984) that she was selected to. She was ranked No. 2 in the United States and No. 5 in the world by Track & Field News in the 200 meters a year before her Olympic debut.

Cheeseborough was just getting started in establishing herself as one of the nation’s top sprinters. Cheeseborough merited a Top 3 ranking among United States runners in the 100 meters for the next five years.

Though she finished out of the running for a medal at the 1976 Olympics, Cheeseborough showed off her clout as America’s premier dual-threat short runner, finishing second in the Olympic Trials and solidifying a No. 2 spot (U.S.) in the 100 meters by Track and Field News.

As she battled short sprint supremacy with Evelyn Ashford and Tennessee State University teammate and friend Brenda Morehead, Cheeseborough continued to make noise on the track. From 1977 through 1980, Cheeseborough earned a No. 3 ranking in the 100 meters in the U.S., behind both Morehead and Ashford.

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Cheeseborough’s sprint dominance evolved into the longer sprints as she mastered the art of running the curve in both 200 and 400 meters.

The track see-saw battle for America’s top female sprinter crown carried over into the 200 meters as well for Cheeseborough, Morehead and Ashford. Morehead would clinch the U.S. championship in the 200 meters at the 1976 Olympic Trials, while Cheeseborough finished second. Morehead claimed the top spot for U.S. sprinters in the 200 in 1976, 1977, and 1980.

Ashford began to flex her muscles in the 200, taking the No. 1 position in 1978, 1979, 1981, 1982, and 1983. All the while, Cheeseborough remained in the thick of things, fluctuating from No. 2 (1976, 1980), No. 3 (1977, 1978, 1981, 1983) and No. 4 (1979, 1982, 1984) for nearly a decade.

Cheeseborough and Morehead would finish like two peas in a pod at the 1980 Olympics Trials. Morehead would up second with Cheeseborough making the U.S. team with a third-place finish. But it was all Cheeseborough’s show in the 200. Cheeseborough won the event in a time of 22.70 to become the U.S. champion.

Unfortunately for Cheeseborough and the rest of the 1980 USA Olympic team, those chosen athletes were not able to compete in the Summer Games because of America’s boycott that year.

Cheeseborough saw her dreams of possible Olympic gold disappear because of the political standoff between Russia and the United States. The opportunity for her to redeem herself after her sixth-place finish at the 1976 Olympics just went up in smoke. But redemption for Cheeseborough and other American athletes would come four years later at the 1984 Olympic Games, which was held in Los Angeles, California.

This post is an excerpt from a chapter from a yet-to-be-published book written By Dennis J. Freeman about the legendary exploits of the Tennessee State Tigerbelles.   

Featured Image Caption: Sonya Smith, Peggy Earnest, and Tennessee State University Director of Track and Field Chandra Cheeseborough. Courtesy photo