For Lillie Leatherwood, the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro bring back memories of the highlight of her life – the day 32 years ago when she took her place on the podium as a gold-medal winner.
Leatherwood brought home the gold in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics as part of the U.S. team that competed in the 4×400-meter relay. She ran the first leg of the event in 50.15 seconds. Then, four years later and a world away in Seoul, Korea, the track star was once again on the Olympic stage.
“Being up on that podium, that’s when it really hit home,” said Leatherwood. “We actually did this; we got the medal. You know everybody back home is rooting for you. It was an exciting experience and an exciting time period in my life.”
Leatherwood, part-time security officer at the Alabama Power Western Division Office and director of the Tuscaloosa Police Athletic League (PAL), said it was not until she was a junior at Tuscaloosa County High School that she joined the track team and realized she could run fast. She soon began winning state championships in the 200 meters. With her talent as a sprinter, Leatherwood received a four-year track scholarship to the University of Alabama.
That’s when Leatherwood began to shine as an international sprint champion. Wayne Williams, track coach at the University of Alabama, saw Leatherwood’s potential as a longer-distance runner and challenged her to begin competing in 400-meter events.
“At that time, Lillie was on the team with a group of guys and girls who were really good in the SEC (Southeastern Conference) and NCAA track championships,” said Williams, now a volunteer coach at Presbyterian Christian School in Hattiesburg, Miss. “They fed off of each other, and were highly skilled and motivated. Lillie was talented and good. But she had a great working environment with other athletes who were motivated, and she was able to step up her game with the rest of them.”
As a sophomore at Alabama, Leatherwood qualified for the Olympic trials and finished third in the nation. That victory secured a spot on the U.S. 4×400-meter relay team headed for the games in Los Angeles. During this event a team of four sprinters in turn run a leg of the race.
To prepare for the Olympics, Leatherwood said she started every day with a 2- or 3-mile run. Then, under the watchful eyes of Williams and the other Alabama track coaches, she endured grueling workouts and ran about two hours every afternoon.
“Everything happened so fast,” Leatherwood said. “You had to stay focused because you knew you would be competing against the best in the world. You couldn’t be missing practice. You had to stick with it and eat healthy.”
Leatherwood said the Olympic experience was thrilling. She made friends from many different countries and still keeps in touch with them through Facebook.
Life in the Olympic village was “almost like home,” Leatherwood said. Although the athletes spoke different languages, the barriers were not noticeable with interpreters on hand to help bridge the communication gaps.
Williams attended the Los Angeles Games to monitor the workouts of Leatherwood and other Olympians from the university who were competing and to cheer them on from the stands.
“On the final day of the Olympics in L.A., two of my athletes, Lillie and Calvin Smith, got the gold within 45 minutes of each other,” Williams said. “It made me feel extremely excited and proud.”
“Lillie was the best runner in the 400 meters for two or three years there,” Williams said. “That was pretty good for a small-town girl from Ralph (near Northport).”
Brooks Johnson, who was Leatherwood’s Olympic coach at the 1984 games, called her the “quintessential team player.”
“We could have put her on any leg and she would have been the same,” said Johnson, noting that he asked Leatherwood to lead the relay because of her strength. “She would do whatever it took to help the team.
“You can tell a lot about an athlete’s training and upbringing by how they carry themselves,” he said. “Lillie carried herself in a very dignified, professional and respectful manner.”
That win in Los Angeles was just the start for Leatherwood. She returned to the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, where she helped her 4×400-meter relay team capture the silver medal for the United States.
“The second go-round was harder. There was more pressure because I was going back. You’re expected to win,” Leatherwood said.
Leatherwood won many other national and international titles while at the university and as a professional athlete. She won the 400-meter dash in the NCAA Indoor Track and Field Championships in 1985 and again in 1986. Her time of 53.12 seconds at the 1986 championships marked an indoor collegiate record.
She took medals at two World Championships in the 4×400-meter relay. Leatherwood got the bronze in the championships in Rome in 1987 and the silver in Tokyo in 1991.
Leatherwood’s talent as a top athlete gave her the chance to compete in many countries, including Russia, Germany, Italy, England, Australia and France.
“I got to travel and sightsee in so many other places all during college and even after college,” she said. “I made friends from all over the world.”
In 1993, Leatherwood stepped out of the limelight when she decided to join the Tuscaloosa police force. She was assigned to her dream job at PAL two years later and rose to director in 2012. This juvenile-crime prevention program provides children, ages 6-18, with after-school activities such as tutoring, bowling, skating and volleyball.
“I think I can be a role model for these kids and give back to the community,” said Leatherwood, who has organized track meets as part of her work with PAL. “We’re here to help them so they won’t be out on the street and get into trouble.”
Leatherwood’s athletic talent is still drawing attention. She received the 2015 Paul W. Bryant Alumni-Athlete Award from the University of Alabama last fall.
When the U.S. track team competes starting this weekend in the 2016 Rio games, Leatherwood said she will be watching from home.
“I still get a little jittery because I was once a part of it,” Leatherwood said. “I enjoy seeing the kids run good times and win those medals.”