By HELEN ROSS
What kind of athlete was Kathy McMillan?
Well, consider this. When she was a student at Hoke County High School, McMillan won the long jump at the 1976 North Carolina High School Athletic Association state meet with a record leap of 21 feet, 7 inches. It was her fourth straight title in the event.
And by the way, that long jump record still stands today, 45 years later.
McMillan also set a National Federation of High Schools record when she jumped 22 feet, 3 inches at the 1976 Jack In The Box Invitational. That mark – which was more than two feet longer than any high school jumper at the time -- stood for 39 years and is still No. 2 nationally.
Oh, and did we mention that McMillan went on to win the silver medal at the Montreal Olympic Games in 1976 – barely a month after she graduated from high school?
McMillan was in sixth place in Montreal until her fifth jump when she leapt 21 feet, 7 ¼ to finish second. She scratched on a jump of 22 feet, 4 ½ inches that actually could have given her the gold.
Not bad for a teenager who didn’t even know what the Olympic Games were until Hoke County coach William Colston told her she had the talent to make the U.S. team.
“But I had faith in what he was saying,” McMillan said when she was inducted into the North Carolina High School Track & Field Hall of Fame in January of last year, a member of the organization’s inaugural class.
Unfortunately, McMillan didn’t have another chance to go for Olympic gold because the United States boycotted the 1980 Summer Games in Moscow. She made the team, though, and received one of 461 Congressional Gold Medals given to its members.
McMillan did win gold at the Liberty Bell Classic, organized by U.S. Track and Field in the wake of the boycott. Athletes from 29 countries attended, and McMillan finished first in the long jump with a leap of 21 feet, 8 inches.
McMillan also won gold at the 1979 and 1983 Pan-Am Games, as well as a trio of AAU titles. She also was part of a world record run in the 880-yard relay in 1978 and 440-yard relay team that produced American records indoors and out in 1980.
McMillan went on to run track at Tennessee State. Her coach Ed Temple had high praise for McMillan when she was inducted into the Tennessee State Hall of Fame in 1981.
“She is the most fierce competitor I have ever coached,” he said. “She thrives on pressure. The greater it is, the better she is. I have never seen an athlete with more determination.”
And this is from a man who had coached 35 Olympians at that point, including the great Wilma Rudolph.
McMillan was inducted into the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame in 1999. She is also member of the National High School Track & Field Hall of Fame and one of the North Carolina High School Athletic Association’s “100 to Remember” female athletes.