They met a female student who had volunteered to escort her and who would remain her friend 58 years later. They began walking toward an English class where a vacant seat awaited, second row from the front. She sat down, and in that moment in September 1961, Yvonne Lee had integrated Seacrest High all by herself, in her poodle skirt, loafers and two pairs of socks arrayed fashionably in opposing orders, a 15-year-old girl who someday would become the maternal grandmother of the world-famous Coco Gauff.
“I was not nervous,” Yvonne Lee Odom, 73, said recently in the comfortable living room of the spacious house she and her husband, Eddie, have shared since the 1970s. “I was not scared. But I do remember when the young lady came and got me out of the principal’s office after he went over his little routine, and at Seacrest, ’cause they’ve torn the school down now, they had windows, you could see out” of the classrooms into the hallway.
There, in the hallway, she walked at a formative age when attention can feel like anathema.
“And I could just see the eyes” of the students gawking, she retold it, then laughed her rich, considerable laugh.
If you wanted to observe the fearlessness she had marshaled by age 15 and then spot it in another 15-year-old, the fifth of Odom’s seven grandchildren, it would not be irrational. While Odom doesn’t rate any of her grandchildren above any of the others, one has become globally visible through playing in packed tennis arenas with a face that seems both young and wise, a face rich in intensity, confidence and still, somehow, peace. That 15-year-old grandchild is Gauff, and her 6-3, 6-4 upset of No. 3 Naomi Osaka on Friday in the third round of the Australian Open just propelled her from sensation to even bigger sensation.
‘Nobody ever beat me’
Gauff’s mother, Candi, ran track at Florida State after winning the Florida state high school heptathlon championship twice. Candi Odom Gauff’s mother, Yvonne, both achieved and sacrificed before she transferred. She had adored Carver High, the nearby school designated for African Americans. She had amassed friends, played basketball, won “Miss Teen Town,” won a coveted attendant’s spot in “Miss Carver,” won an oratorical contest reciting the Gettysburg Address.
She had dreamed of making it to Tennessee State University, where Ed Temple spent 44 remarkable seasons coaching his “Tigerbelles.”
“That’s where Wilma Rudolph went,” she said. “They put out Olympic sprinters like you wouldn’t believe, and I just believe had I stayed at Carver — now, that’s my own belief! — I probably would have gotten a scholarship ’cause I was fast, I was really fast, as a runner. I did intramurals, and nobody ever beat me. Nobody ever beat me. And in basketball, I was really quick. I could jump. I could block shots. But we only did the intramurals, and the scholarships were not offered at the white schools for those sports. They had the golf, the tennis, those kinds of things, and we didn’t even get on the court at that time because it was segregated.”
In such dumber times, the Palm Beach County school board had gotten around in September 1961 to implementing the U.S. Supreme Court ruling of May 1954 on Brown v. Board of Education. It had evaluated Carver students, looking for a star. Yvonne Lee had gone to a Thursday night football game at Carver. She had come home. Her father, a minister with a deep strain of diplomacy, had informed her he had enrolled her at Seacrest.
“You did what?” she replied, yet she didn’t get miffed. She felt no disruption of sleep. And when she informed her schoolmates at Carver, their reaction wound up bolstering her. They deemed her as both their excellent representative sent to a realm they always internalized as higher and as someone who could debunk all the fallacies they had internalized. She began an unmistakable yearning to prove herself.
“So I was not afraid to be in front of people,” she said. “You know, in the black church, that’s what you did. You recited stuff. You sang. That’s how a lot of the kids trained. You think about the Martin Luther Kings and you do the background of any of these black people, they got their training in the black church. Aretha Franklin.”
In a mere 10 Grand Slam tennis matches, Coco Gauff has won a stunning eight times. She has played Venus Williams twice somehow (last year at Wimbledon and in this Australian Open) and beaten Williams twice. She has gone to the fourth round (Wimbledon), the third round (U.S. Open) and the fourth round (Australian Open). She has wowed Wimbledon. She calmly has stirred, from Louis Armstrong Stadium at the U.S. Open, roars that feel as if some sort of rarefied connection has congealed already. She has epitomized the 60 years of the gathering of the appreciation of the female athlete.
At Seacrest, Lee thrived even while fulfilling silly duties the dismal culture required. “You know, little things happened. Like they wanted to know, I was in a speech class once, and they were curious to see if I had a suntan,” she said of her fellow students. “Sure enough, I said, ‘Look.’ The way I explained it: ‘You’ve got blondes. You’ve got brunettes. The brunette can stay out in the sun a little longer. But if they stay out there, they’re going to burn.’ And so one time we were outside, and my nose started to peel, and I went around there, showed them the nose, I said, ‘See.’ ”
She laughed her rich, considerable laugh.
“Because you learn things. Because they thought we had tails.”
She laughed again.
Lee asked to try out for cheerleading and still can hear the accent of the coach advising her to refrain because certain schools down farther south weren’t ready. She asked after one semester to join P.E. class and the school relented after fretting at first it might be unsafe for her. The same went for student restrooms, which she asked to use after being assigned to the adult restrooms at first.
She remembers a boy recoiling at first when he was assigned to square-dance with her but remembers he — and they — proceeded. “I remember my partner in science class,” she said. “And I [credit] that a lot on the teacher, Mr. Thurber, I’ll never forget, he was so sensitive, and I don’t know if he had picked who my partner would be, but we dissected frogs and all that together, and it was just like, treated me like a regular person.” In that funny way about the workings of human memory, she remembers the locker room after gym class disabusing her of her former assumption that all female pubic hair was black.
Behind all those walls and those windows, she also found an adjustment of thinking she hadn’t envisioned.
“See, we were brainwashed. That’s what I call it,” she said. “When I say ‘we,’ African American community, because you believe what you’re told. And I know from our own teachers, they instilled in us that we had to be better than a white person, to get the same job. So in my mind, they were smarter, they did things better, and then when I went over there and was in the school, and I’m looking around and I’m like, ‘Well, dang, I’m smarter than a lot of these kids.’
“Then the other thing is, the dress. Black kids always dressed for school, like we were going to church almost. That was a thing with black people. And then I go over there, and they’re wearing flip-flops, shorts! They had a smoking section for the seniors! And if you had got caught smoking, at a black school, you were in serious trouble. But they had this big, huge tree on campus where the kids could go and smoke. I never smoked, but I was like, ‘Oh, my goodness.’ ”
By her junior year, four other African American girls had joined her at Seacrest. They’re all still in touch, as is Odom with Paula Adams, long since the girl who asked to escort her that first day. Among all their other pursuits, they’re all beholding a phenomenon, even from 9,716 miles away.
Success runs in the family
The veins of Coco Gauff’s family tree brim with the power of sports. Her grandfather, “Red” Odom, Yvonne’s teenage boyfriend turned husband, has coached youth baseball for almost all his adult life and has grappled with the drift of African American boys toward football, after his own stint in the minor leagues that included once rooming with a certain Johnnie B. “Dusty” Baker. Gauff’s father, Corey, played basketball at Georgia State, including the 1991 NCAA tournament opposite the mighty Arkansas of the incomparable Nolan Richardson. Gauff’s uncle, Candi’s brother, played baseball at Florida A&M.
On three occasions already in Grand Slams, Gauff has rebounded from one-set deficits, including one in the second round in Australia against Sorana Cirstea in which Gauff trailed 3-0 in the third set. She told reporters of that match: “I think I was just trying to stay calm mostly and stay positive. I’ve always believed I could come back, regardless of score.”
After the first of those comebacks, against Polona Hercog in the third round at Wimbledon, a former 15-year-old sat beside her husband amid an exultant sports bar in Florida. Yvonne Lee Odom has reached 73 looking vibrant and vivid. She taught school for 45 years and adored the path. Readily she will tell you she has battled Stage 4 lung cancer, her tenor rich in a pride for the fight. It does seem she would have made one hell of a Tigerbelle.
As the room celebrated what Gauff had just done on Court 1 at Wimbledon at 15 years 110 days old, a woman who also made a walk requiring unfathomable confidence, at 15 years 135 days, now whispered to her husband. “I said, ‘I’m so happy for you ’cause all these kids you have helped, in your lifetime, and now here it is your granddaughter who has achieved this kind of success.’ That’s what I whispered. I sure did.”
The sentiment applied as well — and thoroughly — to a girl in a poodle skirt wearing two pairs of socks arrayed fashionably in opposing orders and walking to English class with herculean nerve endings.