Tampa's Theresa Manuel, pioneering black Olympian, dies at 90

Published November 23 2016
Updated November 23 2016

TAMPA — Theresa Manuel, who soared over hurdles both on the track and off as the first black woman from Florida to compete in the Olympics, died Monday (Nov. 21, 2016) in Tampa. She was 90.

A longtime teacher and coach at Middleton and Hillsborough high schools, Ms. Manuel had been in the hospital last week and was discharged Saturday but stopped eating on Sunday and declined quickly.

"She just slipped away," said Cynthia Flowers, her cousin and caregiver.

"The Tampa community has lost a history-maker," U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, said Wednesday.

As a track star in the 1948 Olympics in London, Ms. Manuel "shattered barriers," Castor said. Later, she motivated students "to win on the field and in life."

Born in Port Tampa, Ms. Manuel grew up there and in West Tampa. At Middleton High School, her sport was basketball.

"The basketball court was outside," she said in a recent interview with Florida Trend. "We didn't have lights. At night, the neighbors would set up lamps with long extension cords and flood the court with light so we could practice."

She went on to play basketball at Tuskegee Institute (now university) in Alabama, earning the nickname "Trick Shot." Seeing her run, college teammates urged her to go out for track, a sport Middleton didn't have.

She excelled, setting a record for the 50-meter hurdles on a dirt track. While she was at Tuskegee, the women's teams were undefeated in both basketball and track. That led to her joining the Olympic team, where she competed in the 80-meter hurdles, threw the javelin and ran the third leg in the 440-yard relay.

Ms. Manuel said she was proud to represent her country and determined to represent other African-Americans well.

"Competing in the Olympics in 1948 may have paved the way for other blacks," she said. "There was segregation back then. To ride a streetcar, you had to get in the back. For them to say you can't do this or you can do that, that made me feel pretty bad. But when I competed in sports, that was a good feeling. I felt like the best girl out there."

The year after the Olympics, Ms. Manuel graduated from Tuskegee. She turned down at least one marriage proposal so she could return to Tampa to care for her ailing mother and teach at her alma mater.

She never married, "but she has a whole lot of children," Flowers said.

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

Coaching the girls basketball team to state titles, "I'd tell the girls that when I played, we'd never lose a game, and that we're not going to lose a game now," she said.

When Middleton closed in 1971, she transferred to Hillsborough High. She coached basketball, swimming, majorettes and dancerettes before retiring in 1988. She was named Hillsborough County Coach of the Year in girls basketball in 1975 and Florida Coach of the Year in 1976.

Her family plans a private service. There is discussion of a public memorial, but those plans were not set Wednesday.

While she was best known as an athlete, Ms. Manuel showed early on that she was undaunted in the face of racial barriers.

"We went to a store when I was a teenager and there were two water fountains, one white and one colored, and I wanted to taste the water from the white one to see if it tasted the same," she once recalled.

So she turned to a friend and offered two words of advice that were good for that moment — and the rest of her life.

"Watch me."