Retired track star and Memphis native Rochelle Stevens won her Olympic gold medal before today’s middle schoolers were even born, but that didn’t stop students at one hometown school from listening to her inspirational message with rapt attention.
“Some dream of success. And others wake up and work hard at it,” Stevens told an assembly Wednesday at Memphis Scholars Raleigh-Egypt.
Stevens is a graduate of Memphis Melrose High School and went on to win gold in the women’s 4×400-meter relay during the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta. Today, she’s a local entrepreneur, philanthropist and author.
She told students about her journey to lift her family out of poverty, an invaluable testimonial for students at Raleigh-Egypt.
“It’s a big deal. They’re fascinated that someone is standing in front of them from Memphis holding up gold medals,” said school director Jerry Sanders.
Raleigh-Egypt is among the state’s lowest-performing schools, prompting the state to take control of the middle school and convert it to a charter school this fall under Tennessee’s Achievement School District. Like most ASD schools, Raleigh-Egypt serves a high concentration of students from low-income families. Based on the latest data, about 96 percent of the state-run district’s students are considered economically disadvantaged, compared with 79 percent in Shelby County Schools.
Stevens, 50, described her journey to gold, beginning with the inspiration provided by fellow Tennessean Wilma Rudolph, who in 1960 became the first African-American woman to win three gold medals in track and field in one Olympics.
Stevens began racing other children in her Orange Mound neighborhood, until her mother enrolled her in a neighborhood track club. There, she competed and climbed the ranks to garner 20 full college track scholarships.
But there were major disappointments along the way.
She lost her first bid to qualify for a U.S. Olympic team “by a blink.” After a six-month bout of self-doubt, she began training six hours daily, including five-mile runs in Shelby Farms Park.
“If tears didn’t come out of my eyes, I didn’t put in my 110 percent. If I was able to walk to the car, I didn’t put in my 110 percent. I crawled to the car,” she said. “You may not accomplish that dream the first time … but I can get up and work harder.”
She went on to make the U.S. team, winning a silver medal in the Barcelona games and culminating with her gold medal in 1996.
Today, Stevens operates Rochelle’s Health & Wellness Day Spa in Collierville, where she also coordinates the Rochelle Stevens Invitational for youth, adults and elite athletes to connect with college coaches and recruiters. Her recent autobiography is titled “Travel the World by Foot.”