On Dec. 1, 1956, before more than 100,000 spectators, four young women lined up inside the Melbourne, Australia, Cricket Ground for the 16th Olympiad’s 4- by 100-meter relay. When 19-year-old anchor Isabelle Daniels hit the wire at 45.4 seconds, they were only vaguely aware of making history.
It would take years, well into the civil rights era and perhaps beyond, before the moment echoed with full resonance.
They were probably the first all-African-American women’s team of any sport to compete in the Olympics. Their time was good enough for a bronze, but all three medal-winning teams — Australia won gold and Great Britain silver — broke the previous world record.
Three of them attended Tennessee State University in Nashville: Mae Faggs, who’d already competed in the 1948 and ’52 Olympics; Margaret Matthews; and and Daniels. The fourth, a 16-year-old high school phenom from Clarksville, Tenn., named Wilma Rudolph, later attended TSU herself and became a track and field legend.
But at that time Daniels was probably the fastest woman sprinter in the U.S. When she retired as an amateur in 1959 she still held a world record in the 50-yard dash.
“Isabelle was something,” said Margaret Matthews Wilburn, the quartet’s only surviving member. “But don’t get me wrong — all of us were good.”
Isabelle Daniels Holston, 80, died Sept. 8 in the Decatur home she shared with her husband, the Rev. Sidney R. Holston, for 51 years. The cause was pulmonary hypertension and congestive heart failure due to a blood clot. The Sept. 18 funeral at Saint Philip A.M.E. in Atlanta was attended by eight former Olympians, her casket draped with the Olympic flag. She’ll be buried in the Georgia National Cemetery in Canton.
Holston was born July 31, 1937, in Jakin, Ga., the last of nine siblings who nicknamed her “Tweety” for her high-pitched crying as an infant. Her father grew peanuts, cotton and corn on his farm, but he also drove a school bus. When she was 16 and began training for the prestigious Tuskegee (Alabama) Relays, she ran the 13 miles from home to school every day alongside her dad’s bus.
At Tuskegee she was spotted by Ed Temple, a sociology professor who ultimately built a track dynasty of women athletes called the TSU Tigerbelles. Temple, Matthews-Wilburn recalled, rarely raised his voice and never used profanity. In 44 years an astounding 40 of his Tigerbelles earned Olympic honors.
“He trained us hard,” Matthews-Wilburn said. “Sometimes we trained two or three times a day in the summer, and we ran on this cinder track. Cinder! Believe me, compared to practice, when we went to a track meet it was a piece of cake.”
Holston was part of the Tigerbelles’ five consecutive AAU relay championships. In the 1959 Pan American Games she won a gold in the 60 meters, a silver in the 200 meters, and another gold in the 4-by-100-meter relay, this time with Barbara Jones, Lucinda Williams and Rudolph.
During her 1955-59 Tennessee State career she competed in Moscow, Budapest, Warsaw, Athens, Greece and Mexico City, along with Melbourne. In a recent interview daughter Kezia Holston said she isn’t sure how many medals her mother won but “there’s a bagful of them in the basement.”
Immediately after graduation Holston taught health and physical education at Carver High in Columbus, Ga., where she met her future husband on Oct. 8, 1959. They married exactly one year later.
“For me, what stood out about Isabelle was her character and unwavering faith,” the Rev. Holston said. “Before every race, while she was at the starting line, she’d recite Psalm 27 to herself: ‘The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the strength of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?’ “
After two years in Columbus, Holston spent 35 years teaching and coaching track and basketball in several DeKalb County schools. Her teams won numerous county, region and state titles. In 1990 she was named by the National High School Athletic Association as National Coach of the Year. In 1987 she was inducted into the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame.
Almost until the end she kept her sneakers close. From 1996 to 2015 she participated in the national and state Senior Olympics, mostly in the long jump, shot put and discus. It was during the 2015 event she first noticed a shortness of breath that later reduced her to mere jogging or walking.
Doctors discovered the blood clot on July 4, 2016. She kept walking, though, mostly short strolls down her street, even while carrying her oxygen. She celebrated her 80th birthday two months ago at the Decatur Recreation Center.
Lying in bed on Friday, Sept. 8, she asked to be moved to her couch in the living room. Sidney, Inessa and Kezia lifted her gently and had just gotten her to the bed’s edge when she quietly slipped away.
“Typical of Mama,” Kezia said. “Even in the end she was on the move.”
Besides her husband of 57 years, she is survived by sons Sidney Tyville Holston (Atlanta) and Frederick A. Holston (Dublin, Ga), daughters Inessa F. Holston (Decatur) and Kezia Olivia Holston (Decatur); and eight grandchildren.