"Changed the Game" is a Yahoo Sports series dedicated to the women who are often overlooked, under-appreciated or simply deserve more flowers for their contributions to women's sports history.
If you're an American track and field fan of a certain age or just a fan of its history, you certainly know Florence Griffith-Joyner and her sister-in-law, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, two women who set world records in their respective events that still remain decades later.
But one of Griffith-Joyner's three gold medals from the 1988 Seoul Summer Olympics, the Games that made her a superstar, came in large part thanks to a woman who doesn't get nearly the same amount of attention: Evelyn Ashford.
Ashford's anchor leg in the 4x100 meter relay final, pulling away from East German Marlies Göhr, is the stuff of legend. Griffith-Joyner and Ingrid Lange, the third leg for East Germany, were quite close at the final handoff. But the baton pass from Griffith-Joyner to Ashford wasn't great, putting Ashford behind.
But it didn't matter:
That gold medal followed a silver in the open 100 meters in Seoul, when she was runner-up to Griffith-Joyner.
Olympic boycott delays Evelyn Ashford's rise to prominence
Though Ashford, the oldest of five children, was born in Shreveport, Louisiana, her family moved to California during her childhood because of her father's career in the Air Force, and she attended high school in the Sacramento area. Roseville High School didn't have a girls track team at the time, so Ashford was the only girl on the boys team and served as a co-captain her senior year.
She was one of the first women to receive an athletic scholarship to UCLA, and after her freshman season, she stunned the world by finishing fifth in the 100 meters at the 1976 Olympics. Ashford left UCLA in 1978 to train for the 1980 Summer Games, which were supposed to be her star-making turn, and at the 1979 World Cup firmly established herself as the top female sprinter in the world when she beat both Göhr in the 100 and world-record holder Marita Koch, also from East Germany, in the 200 meters.
But the United States' boycott meant she couldn't compete in Moscow, a devastating decision for Ashford and so many other American athletes.
Ashford set her first world record in July 1983, running 10.79 seconds in the 100. It set her as the favorite to win the event at the first IAAF World Championships later that summer, but a pulled hamstring in the finals meant she didn't finish.
Evelyn Ashford gets her moment at 1984, 1988 Olympics
At the '84 Games in Los Angeles, Ashford finally got her moment, winning her long-awaited gold in an Olympic record 10.97 seconds. She anchored the American 4x100 team to gold as well.
With Communist countries boycotting the Los Angeles Olympics as the Americans had done four years earlier in the U.S.S.R., Ashford didn't face one of her top competitors, Göhr. Any question as to the legitimacy of Ashford's win was answered in August of that year, when Ashford and Göhr were both at the historic Weltklasse meeting in Zurich; Ashford had a poor start and Göhr led for the first 80 or so meters, but Ashford's beautiful stride and strong finish closed the gap and she edged Göhr for the win, lowering her world record to 10.76 seconds. It's still the fastest time ever run at Weltklasse, even 36 years later.
Ashford took time off in 1985 due to the birth of her daughter Raina, returning to the track in 1986.
Ashford had the honor of serving as the United States flag bearer for the opening ceremonies in 1988, the first African-American woman chosen to do so. Her silver-medal performance in the 100 and unforgettable anchor leg followed.
“When I’m running fast, I feel like I’m weightless,” she told Fortune magazine in 1991. “It’s like I’m flying, like I’m not even touching the ground.”
In 1992, at the incredible age of 35, Ashford narrowly missed out on a spot in the 100 meter final and was the lead leg on the gold-medal winning 4x100 relay, making her the only woman in history with three golds in that event.
She retired from competition after the '92 Games with four Olympic golds and a silver and 19 national championships. Now 63-years-old, Ashford has kept a very low profile and appears to have not given an interview in about 20 years.
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