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Black Olympian, coach, teacher marks 85 years of quiet determination

TAMPA

On a basketball court some 60 years ago, players called her Trick Shot. Later, thousands of students would call her Ms. Manuel. Now, those close by know her simply as Mama T.

Theresa Manuel has shown them all that she could leap hurdles — literally and figuratively.

She made history in 1948 as the first African-American woman from Florida to compete in the Olympics, then she overcame barriers of segregation to become an influential educator in Hillsborough County for 38 years.

These days, the 85-year-old works on word puzzles and watches local sports teams and game shows on TV with her cousin Cynthia Flowers in a small house near West Tampa Elementary School. She's reading Tony Dungy's Quiet Strength.

It's a concept that fits Manuel, who as a little girl born in Port Tampa never dreamed of all she would achieve.

• • •

Theresa Manual went to segregated schools, rode in the back of streetcars and used separate restrooms and water fountains than whites.

Her mother was a homemaker; her stepfather a porter on a train. He coached a boys baseball team, and that was her first experience with sports.

She was a teen in downtown Tampa the first time she challenged racial boundaries, hinting of a strength that would grow.

"Watch me," she remembers telling a friend. "I'm going to see the difference in the water."

She sneaked to the "whites only" fountain and took a sip. She laughs now, but acknowledged she would have been in for a mess of trouble if caught.

She stepped over that dividing line again in 1948, as she traveled with her teammates from Tuskegee Institute on a cruise ship to London en route to the Olympics.

Women had been first allowed to compete in Olympic track and field events 20 years earlier, but sports were still considered unladylike by many.

The Tuskegee women's track team had been unbeatable in the United States. The athletes were treated like equals on a ship outfitted with a swimming pool and a gym. Manuel remembers a sea that went on forever, gorging on white potatoes (not part of her usual staple) and running laps on the deck.

Her coach had given her $20, and she bought a rain jacket to keep dry in a drizzly London. Manuel ran the 80-meter hurdles, was the third leg in the 440-yard team relay, and threw a javelin. Although she didn't rank, she treasured the experience. Her teammate Alice Coachman won the high jump, becoming the first black woman to win an Olympic gold medal.

Back in the States, the young women met President Harry Truman. The next year, Manuel graduated from Tuskegee. She turned down several marriage offers, she said, and came back to care for her ailing mother and teach at her alma mater, Middleton High School.

She coached the girls basketball team through three state championships — losing wasn't an option, she told the girls. Manuel says her basketball team had not lost a single game in four years at Tuskegee.

She would see a tall girl in the halls at Middleton and ask if she could play basketball. If the girl said no, Manuel replied, "Well, you're going to learn."

When Middleton closed in 1971 under a court desegregation order, she transferred to Hillsborough High. She coached basketball, swimming, majorettes and dancerettes before retiring in 1988.

School Board chairwoman Doretha Edgecomb remembers her at Middleton as a teacher who set high standards for students, no matter what the circumstances.

"She said what she meant and meant what she said," Edgecomb said.

• • •

Manuel loves to watch sports on TV and typically roots for any Florida team, especially the Buccaneers.

She keeps an eye out for women's basketball games, although she said she rarely finds them televised.

Last Sunday, she and her cousin, Flowers, hosted a Super Bowl party with chili and corned beef dip for a handful of friends and relatives. (She rooted for the Steelers.)

Manuel says she feels 68 rather than the 86 she will be next year.

For her 85th birthday last month, Flowers organized a surprise party for Manuel, with about 90 former students, friends and relatives.

Officials from the Olympics sent gifts of an Olympic flag, sports clothing and a Tiffany pen. Guests recited poetry and spoke of how Manuel had carried on a torch brought by their forefathers.

Flowers graduated from Blake High and Manuel from rival Middleton, yet the women put that aside to live together.

"She's a Tiger; I'm a Yellow Jacket," Flowers said before playfully warning her cousin: "Don't come in here snarling all up in the beehive."

On good days, Manuel sometimes walks the pier at Ballast Point, although her knees took a beating from years of quick moves on the basketball court and unforgiving wooden hurdles that she nicked.

On a recent day, she eased outdoors, where a neighbor called out "Mama T."

"Yeah, baby," she replied.

Mark Lufric was a student at Hillsborough High when she coached. She didn't talk much, he remembers, but when she did, students listened.

"She walked softly," he said, "but stepped hard."

Reach Elisabeth Parker at eparker@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3431.

Black Olympian, coach, teacher marks 85 years of quiet determination 02/10/11 [Last modified: Thursday, February 10, 2011 3:30am]
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