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Willye White, 67; competed in 5 Olympics

Willye White, breaking her own American record for long jump, in West Germany. Willye White, breaking her own American record for long jump, in West Germany. (upi file/1961)

CHICAGO -- Willye White, a five-time US Olympian and two-time Olympic silver medalist, died Tuesday. She was 67.

Ms. White died of pancreatic cancer at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, according to Sarah Armantrout, a longtime friend.

Ms. White competed in five consecutive Olympic Games between 1956 and 1972 and remains the only American to have competed on five Olympic track and field teams, according to the US Olympic Committee.

She was a 16-year-old sophomore in high school when she won a silver medal in the long jump in the 1956 games in Melbourne, Australia. It was the first time an American woman won a medal in that event. She won another silver medal in 1964 as a member of the 400-meter relay team in Tokyo.

In all, she was a member of more than 30 international track and field teams and won a dozen Amateur Athletic Union long jump titles in her career, according to USA Track & Field, which inducted her into its hall of fame in 1981 -- one of her 11 sports hall of fame inductions. In 1999, Sports Illustrated for Women named her one of the 100 greatest women athletes in the 20th century.

Born in Money, Miss., and raised by her grandparents, she picked cotton to help her family earn money, while at the same time competing in sports.

"She grew up before the civil rights movement and overcame all the hurdles she had as an African-American woman," said Donna DeVarona, an Olympic gold medal-winning swimmer who was friends with Ms. White since the two met in 1960 in Rome.

Ms. White, a longtime Chicago-area resident, credited her experience as an athlete with allowing her to see beyond the racism and hatred that surrounded her as a child.

"Before my first Olympics, I thought the whole world consisted of cross burnings and lynchings," she was quoted as saying by Sports Illustrated for Women.

"The Olympic movement taught me not to judge a person by the color of their skin, but by the contents of their hearts," she said. "I am who I am because of my participation in sports."

After her athletic career ended, Ms. White coached, lectured, and served as president of the Midwest chapter of US Olympians for 12 years. She also helped raise money for the underprivileged, founding the Willye White Foundation in Chicago to help children.

"She raised money for kids in housing projects so that they could go to school," DeVarona said. "For all the struggles she went through she always gave back, she was always . . . campaigning for equal education, equal rights."

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