“Always do your best and don’t settle for less. Show your greatness.”
Those are words of wisdom Olympic gold medalist Barbara Jones-Slater has lived by and the message she diligently impressed upon her children.
Jones-Slater, mother of Conyers resident Leslie Slater, was just 15 in 1952 when she became the youngest woman to ever win a gold medal for Track and Field, a record she still holds today. But it was at home that the Olympian made the biggest impression on her daughter by passing on a champion’s attitude instilled by her own parents during her time of triumph.
“Its not where you live, it is how you feel about yourself that makes you feel rich or poor,” Jones-Slater, now 75, said from her Redan home this week. “I have tried to instill that in my children to always strive for the best. My father always kept me close to the ground, and my mother taught me kindness. My father would say to me ‘If you are still doing the same thing this month that you were doing last month, you are not growing’. So I decided nobody is going to tell me I’m not good when I am.”
Growing up in the projects in Chicago, Jones-Slater was discovered by four-time Track and Field Gold Medalist Jesse Owens, who saw potential in the competitive teenager. Owens helped Jones-Slater pave her way to the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, Finland, where she broke the world-record as part of the USA 4x100 relay team that captured the gold medal. She would go on to collect gold medals in the 1955 and 1959 Pan American Games and the 1960 Olympics in Rome.
One of her favorite memories is from the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, where the 15-year-old awoke to broad daylight at 2am. She remembers getting dressed and walking down the street to a carnival where she rode the Ferris wheel for hours before fellow teammate May Faggs and Olympic Boxer Floyd Patterson found her and marched her directly back to the Olympic Village. It would be the same day she broke the relay world record, a feat which is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records.
There is another momentous occasion that Jones-Slater does not remember, which was her record-breaking 100-meter sprint during the 1955 Pan American preliminaries in Mexico City, which is situated 7,500 feet above sea level. She had beaten the previous 12:2-second record in 11:06 seconds and promptly fainted when she crossed the finish line. Once revived, she learned of her record-breaking performance from her teammates. When she returned home, the Chicago Tribune wrote Jones-Slater “may very well be the best sprinter in the world.” True to form, she beat her own world record in the USA vs. Russia games in 1958 with a 10:3-second 100-yard dash.
In 2011, Jones-Slater flew to Washington to personally accept her “Lifetime Achievement” Award from President Barack Obama. Her accomplishments were also recognized with induction into the U.S. National Track and Field Hall of Fame, the International Track and Field Hall of Fame and the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame. She was a carrier of the Olympic Torch in Atlanta in 1996 and served on the Olympic planning committee.
Her daughter, Leslie Slater, has a vast collection of articles and memorabilia chronicling her mother’s athletic conquests across the globe, the stories from which she shared with her children at an early age. Among the newspaper clippings and photographs that stretch the length of her kitchen table is also a story of personal triumph stemming from physical defeat. Jones-Slater injured her leg mere feet before crossing the finish line first in the qualifying stage of the 1956 Olympics. Set to compete in Melbourne, it was not to be as the injury would not heal in time for the games. She said she was considered a “has been” by the media but remembers the incident as an emotional turning point that fueled her recovery and return to the Olympics in 1960.
“I was glad that it happened to me because I had started getting cocky on and off the track,” Jones-Slater said. That humbling experience served as a message she would share in her life’s work as a counselor at the DeKalb Alternative School in Stone Mountain, where she worked until retirement at the age of 70. She has also encouraged her children and grandchildren to strive for excellence even during challenging times.
As a child, Leslie Slater was keenly aware of her mother’s greatness, which afforded the opportunity for her family to travel far and wide as her mother was recognized and celebrated.
Leslie Slater’s own children have left their own marks on athletics locally. Her son Richard, 20, participated in basketball and track before graduating from Rockdale County High School. Her step-son, 11th grader Lamonta Stroud, is currently a wrestling and football star at RCHS. Leslie Slater said she feels her 10-year-old daughter Leana, a third-grader at Shoal Creek Elementary, will be the next track star of the family. Leana loves to talk about her grandmother’s gold medals and has a daily reminder of the living legend as she walks by memorabilia adorning the walls of her family’s Pinedale Circle house.
A protective and encouraging mother, Leslie Slater learned the winning qualities of parenthood from her mother, who also taught her the importance of listening to your parents.
“I felt special when I was growing up,” Leslie Slater said. “I was proud of my mom being an Olympian. Everybody recognized her. She spoiled us like a regular mother. We talked about the Olympics and how it felt to travel all over the world. But she never thought she was better than anyone, she was just proud of it.”