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Brown, Earlene Dennis (1935—)

Brown, Earlene Dennis (1935—)

Three-time Olympian and the first American woman to win an Olympic medal in shot put. Born on July 11, 1935 in Latexo, Texas; attended public elementary and high school; attended Compton Junior College; completed a machinist training program sponsored by the Comprehensive Educational and Training Act (CETA); married; children: Reggie and Lamar.

Won Olympic bronze medal for women's shot put, 53′10⅜;″, took fourth in discus (1960); held American citizen outdoor record in shot put and discus; became Amateur Athletic Union Champion, shot put (1956–62, 1964); won AAU championship, discus (1958–59, 1961); placed sixth in shot put, fourth in discus, in Olympics (1956); won AAU championship, baseball throw (1957); won gold medal in shot put, silver medal in discus, USA-USSR dual meet (1958); took silver medal in shot put, USA-USSR dual meet (1959); was shot put and discus champion, Pan-AmericanGames (1959); placed 12th in shot put, Olympics (1964).

Born in Latexo, Texas, on July 11, 1935, Earlene Brown would make magic when she tried her hand at the shot put. In this difficult event, an athlete does not throw the ball; rather, it is pushed or "put" from the shoulder, using the competitor's body weight to achieve momentum. For a sport in which the weight of the ball (8 pounds 13⅘ ounces, and 4 inches in diameter) must be balanced on the base of the fingers, an athlete needs an accommodating hand. If she holds the ball too high, stiff fingers produce a poor release; if she holds the ball too low in the palm, the release won't be as sharp or quick. Recalled Brown: "My mother told me that the first thing she noticed about me when I was born were my hands."

When I was young I was ashamed of my size. I never thought something of which I was ashamed—my size and strength—could make me feel proud. But I feel proud now.

—Earlene Brown

Earlene Brown was an only child whose parents separated when she was three. "One thing I can say about my mother," Brown would later remark, "is that she might not have been rich, but everything I ventured into she tried to help me." From her father, a semipro baseball player with the Negro League in Texas, Brown received her athletic heritage, and she excelled early at a number of sports. Brown was playing outfield in a softball game, about age ten, when a ball slammed toward her: one of those great hands shot up and made a Willie Mays one-handed catch. She wanted to play shortstop, but her coach had other plans; for the next six years, she would travel through Northwest towns as the team's catcher.

With the boys, she played volleyball, softball and football in good weather. "I played house and dolls when it was raining," she recalled. "I would make a little grass doll. I'd take a soda-pop bottle and piece of a clothesline and unravel it. Then I would put a clothespin in the bottle and tie the rope on it. I would take a matchstick and roll the rope around it and make a hairstyle." In later years, Brown, an internationally renowned athlete, would look to hair-styling to make enough money to pay the rent and put food on the table.

As a teenager, she excelled in track and field. A large girl (Brown said she couldn't remember ever weighing less than 180 pounds), she could run the 100-yard dash in 12.8 seconds, fast enough to beat the competition in Los Angeles' city-wide track meets where she competed as a member of the DAP, California's equivalent to New York's Police Athletic League. Before she took on the shot put and discus, Brown anchored the relay team and usually won the basketball throw. In 1958, age 23, she would break the American record for the basketball throw at the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) indoor meet in Akron, Ohio. On the first day of competition, smaller participants were achieving better distance. That night, Brown crawled into bed annoyed and puzzled: "I dreamed that I took the basketball and ran up with it like you do a javelin; I was holding the basketball just like I would a javelin. I did my cross-over step and buried my left foot and I whipped the ball over." The next morning, she was the first one at the gym: "I took the ball in my hand to see if I could handle it that way and I could. In competition, later, I threw the ball so far that it flapped up against the wall of the gymnasium." During the meet, Brown broke Amelia Wershoven 's record. Wrote Frances Kaszubski in the Amateur Athlete: "Earlene made the old American record of 105 feet 9½ inches seem almost ridiculous by comparison with a throw of 135 feet 2 inches. This was an unbelievable 30 feet over the old record."

Addie Valdez , Brown's high-school gym teacher, first put the discus in those talented hands, and in the schoolyard Brown's history teacher taught her to shot put. Though he showed her a cumbersome method top athletes had by then abandoned, Brown would win a national championship with this, the crossover, technique. With no formal training, Brown's own athletic instinct defined these early victories; later, with little time to train in the push and shove of an impoverished existence, they would define her career.

Brown did not join the AAU until she was 21, by which time she was married and had a son Reggie. When her son was less than six months old, she was informed by Valdez that it was not too late to begin training for the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, Australia. Brown recalled thinking, "Hey. I didn't know you got to travel overseas. I want to see the world! Wait 'till I tell my husband." But her husband was struggling to find his place in her new life. Despite no coaching or track athletic background, he tried serving as her coach, but the venture was short-lived. Behaving as she thought a "proper wife" should, she deferred to his authority: "To start off with, I asked him if I could go. That was a mistake, because I gave him the authority to tell me whether or not I could go. He ordered me not to go." Unwilling to live with the ultimatum, she and her son moved back home with her mother. To support herself, Brown worked as a domestic, training in her spare time.

All the elements of the shot put came together for Brown in August of 1956 when she competed in the AAU Outdoor Nationals held in Philadelphia. There, she set a new American record with a throw of 45′, while also taking second for the discus. It seemed unlikely, however, that Brown would be able to defend her American record at the Olympic trials held a week later in Washington, D.C., because she did not have the money to attend. The Sentinel, Los Angeles' black newspaper, took up a collection and sent her; this gesture not only supported Brown as an individual athlete but also opened the door for the sports' history she was to shape. Sportswriters across America began to write about Brown, as she overtook Lois Testa in shot put and Pam Kurrell in discus to become a double winner and the leading member of the Olympic team. Less than four months after she joined the AAU, Brown held the American records for shot put and discus.

At the 1956 Games, Brown would not medal, though she was to improve her American record. Fans back home heard that she, Pam Kurrell, and Willye B. White were showing the Nigerians and Russians to rock 'n' roll, and readers enjoyed the image of the easygoing, popular Brown. Athletes of different nationalities sought out the woman whom biographer Michael Davis has described as the "big powerful brown girl in white horn-rimmed glasses who is as light on her feet as a ballerina." Brown was 5′9″ and weighed 265 pounds.

Following the Olympics, Brown spent the next two years competing in AAU and national track-and-field competitions. In 1957, at the AAU Outdoor Nationals held in Cleveland, Ohio, she placed second in both the discus and the shot put, a record she was to improve in 1958 at the Outdoor Nationals in Monmouth, New Jersey. The winners of this meet were scheduled to participate in a series of international track-and-field events in Europe, and the prospect of overseas travel was a great motivator for Brown. She competed fiercely and won a gold medal, breaking her old American record in shot put with a throw of 47′5½″;. She also won a gold medal in discus with a toss that sailed 152′5½".

The European meets proved a showcase for Brown. "Mrs. Earlene Brown is the toast of Moscow," gushed the Associated Press, "just as she was the most widely known of the United States athletes in the Olympic Village in Melbourne in 1956." She did not disappoint. In the shot put, Brown threw further than any American athlete ever and took the gold medal with a toss of 54′3½". Her performance in the discus was almost as impressive when she took second with a throw of over 162′. At the Warsaw meet, she won the gold medal in both shot put and discus.

The European meets ended in Athens, Greece, where Brown gave a stunning performance. In the discus event, she threw an amazing 153′8¾". Not only did she win the gold medal, but the discus flew out of the stadium and into the crowd, soundly smacking two spectators. When Earlene learned she had hit someone, she went over with an interpreter to apologize. Replied one of the spectators: "That's alright; it doesn't hurt much; but could I have your autograph." Brown hugged the woman to the delight of the crowd.

She returned home with seven gold medals and one silver. Many compared her to Babe Didrikson Zaharias and said she had the potential to become one of the greatest women athletes ever. In a country that did not provide training, job security, and housing for its amateur athletes, Brown lacked only the finances to fully realize this potential. To fend for herself and her son, she began attending Henrietta's Beauty College to become a beautician. The long hours spent on her feet in a cubicle, inhaling the fumes of hair oils while washing and styling women's hair, made her too tired for the rigorous training undertaken by many of her peers. In addition to the demands of earning a living, Brown rarely had any athletic-club affiliation, no team to support and inspire her. When it came to coaches, she spoke frankly about her personal weaknesses: "Coaches were always asking me to train the way they wanted me to train. They were always telling me to run two laps around the track and do sitting-up exercises. I would run around the track for one lap just to please the coach, but if he wanted two, he would have to run the second one himself."

It is a testament to Brown's outstanding innate abilities that in 1959 she won first place in the AAU Outdoor Nationals and set meet records when she participated in the Pan-American Games later that year. She placed second in the dual USSR-USA meet, making it easy for observers to overlook the toll her lifestyle was taking; nonetheless, her throw was three feet shy of the previous year's.

During the 1960 Olympics in Rome, Brown repeated the role she played in the 1956 Olympics as "mother-hen" to all the team members. She organized card games and dancing and was a close friend to Wilma Rudolph . After winning the first of her three gold medals, Rudolph abandoned the photographers and well-wishers to run the length of the Olympic stadium to embrace Earlene. After Rudolph's success, Brown and Barbara Jones awaited her with a towel and comb to help Rudolph "pretty up" before the flash of the cameras. "I was so happy when Wilma started winning her three gold medals," said Brown. "After her first medal I hugged her and went out and threw the shot for the bronze medal." Brown's throw of 53′10⅜" brought the U.S. its first Olympic medal in the shot put competition. Two weeks later, she went on to complete in track-and-field meets in Frankfurt, West Germany, and Greece.

After returning home in 1961, Brown entered the AAU Indoor competition and was again chosen to represent the U.S. in a series of European meets. But financial constraints kept her home. Having just purchased a beauty shop for $10,000 with a $1,000 down payment, she had to find additional beauticians and attract clients. Her status as a world-class athlete was of no consequence to the customers on whom she would have to rely to keep up the mortgage payments. With the 1962 AAU Outdoor Nationals held in Los Angeles, Brown juggled her customers and competition, but she was barely hanging on to fifth place after the first qualifying rounds and used her lunch hour for a training blitz. Brown's last throw with the shot put cleared a distance of 48′10½″, giving her the championship once again. She also took second in the discus. The following year, her performance declined. Unable to run the beauty shop and spend adequate time training, she lost her AAU national titles and could not represent the U.S. abroad. Unable to take even second in the shot put or discus, she was deeply hurt by the defeat.

Though many counted her out, Brown did not give up so easily. "A hundred times I've said I'd quit," she said, "but each time I'd get the old urge to travel, and I'd be at it again." Her comeback seemed apparent at the Olympic trials in 1964, where she qualified in shot put though not in discus. With only three days of training with the Olympic team, she was off to Tokyo, Japan. Brown had less than two weeks training at the University of Tokyo before competition, and her Olympic performance showed the lack of preparation. Despite a disappointing 12th-place finish, Brown became the only athlete in the world to ever reach the finals in the shot put in three consecutive Olympics. Davis points out the disparity between Brown's training opportunities and those of other athletes: "It is painful to reflect on what her performance might have been with anything like the three months of intensive training each Russian athlete had before the Tokyo Olympics."

When Brown left amateur sports, she became a Roller Derby superstar and was a member of several professional teams in the 1970s. After retiring from the Roller Derby, Brown worked as a janitor and completed a machinist training program. For Brown, sports and competition had been a road out of the ghetto. "Sports is the greatest thing for any individual to have," she said. "Without sports I would have been nothing. I don't see where life would have had any meaning."

sources:

Davis, Michael D. Black American Women in Olympic Track and Field. Jefferson: McFarland, 1992.

Hollander, Phyllis. 100 Greatest Women in Sports. NY: Grosset and Dunlap, 1976.

Jacobs, Karen F. "Earlene Brown: Down from Olympia," in Essence. May 1979, p 12.

Gaynol Langs , independent scholar, Redmond, Washington

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