Olympic gold medalist and San Joaquin Valley native Lee Evans on Monday shared his experiences as a champion, world-class athlete and participant in the 1960s civil rights movement with more than 100 high school students.
Evans, 68, spoke at the Dos Palos High School track, where he once competed in 1961 as a 15-year-old student athlete while attending Central Union High School in Fresno. Evans remembers he won his race that day.
Competition was a major theme in his speech Monday. Evans, who was also a Fulbright scholar, told the students they should relish competing in all aspects of life, especially in school. He said his proudest achievement was graduating from college, followed by winning his gold medals and participating in the civil rights movement.
“If you don’t compete, you’re going to get smashed. You’re not going to make it,” Evans said.
Evans, during his career, held three world records in track, two Olympic records, as well as two in the NCAA and five U.S. records. He has been inducted in the National Track & Field Hall of Fame and the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame, among others.
His gold-medal victory in the 400-meter event during the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City set a record that stood for two decades. It was a race Evans almost didn’t run.
When two of his teammates from San Jose State, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, were banned for their black-power salute during their medal ceremony, Evans threatened to drop out of the race in a show of support.
Ultimately, Evans decided to run and set the record that stood until 1988.
Evans acknowledged the salute, which was a protest of the human rights abuses of segregation, cost those involved after the games.
“There were repercussions, of course there was,” he said Monday. He said he was fortunate friends and coaches were able to help him get a job teaching later in life.
“At least we were trying to do our part. I’m proud of the part I played in the civil rights movement,” Evans said. “Ending segregation was our main thing.”
He was born in Madera and attended high school in Fresno. His ties to the Valley and to Merced County remain strong. He said his brother lives in Atwater and his two sisters are in Dos Palos.
Evans is also closely related to Dos Palos Police Chief Barry Mann, who helped organize Evans’ appearance Monday at the school.
“I thought it would be a great benefit to the kids here to have someone who’s also from a small community help motivate them not only to be great athletes but to be great people,” Mann said. “I thought his message about setting goals and knowing your purpose and putting your all into it was perfect.”
Megan Grijalva, principal of Dos Palos High School, said she was thrilled her students had a chance to meet Evans. “I think we’re very lucky to have Mr. Evans share his experiences; it was a great opportunity,” she said.
Evans’ message hit home with students like 16-year-old Ozvaldo Suarez, who plays baseball and football.
“It’s very motivational, knowing where he came from and what he did,” Suarez said. “It makes you realize that you could have something like that if you have the confidence and put in the time and the work.”
Sun-Star staff writer Rob Parsons can be reached at (209) 385-2482 or firstname.lastname@example.org.