GAINESVILLE, Florida — Lacey O’Neal is now 77 and lives in Washington, D.C., his main residence in the United States since the 1960s. O’Neal first appeared on the world stage at the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, semi-finalist 80 meter hurdles.
O’Neal returned to the Olympics eight years later at the terror-stricken 1972 Munich Games, this time as a semi-finalist in the 100-meter hurdles. Being a two-time Olympian is only a small part of O’Neal’s life journey.
She grew up in poverty in Chicago, flourished as a hurdler at the University of Hawaii, and in 1973 traveled the world as a professional runner with the International Track Association. O’Neal rarely slowed down, turning his passion for helping others into a wide range of opportunities.
After the 1964 Olympics, O’Neal took a break from the track for several years to work for Operation Champ, a US government-led initiative to promote camaraderie between blacks and whites in the South. O’Neal boycotted the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, and after a career revival as a runner, she changed direction again after the 1972 Games.
She began coaching and made history in 1975 when she was named head coach of the UF women’s track team, the first black head coach in any sport in the league. school history. O’Neal was 31 and found Brooks Johnsonthen assistant to the UF men’s team and its coach before the Munich Olympics.
O’Neal’s historic stint at UF, where she earned a master’s degree in physical education, lasted two seasons before embarking on new adventures. Over the years, O’Neal has served as national coordinator of the Youth Fitness and Sports Forum, spokesperson for Post Cereal’s Fun N’ Fitness program, and named to President Ford’s Council on Fitness and Sports.
During her busiest years, she found time to join the Peace Corps in the West African country of Gambia for five years and work for the State Department as an ambassador for embassies. Americans in Côte d’Ivoire and Burkina Faso.
“Sometimes when I think about it, I wonder if I really did all that?” O’Neal recently said.
O’Neal made her mark at a time when opportunities for African Americans and women were limited compared to today. In honor of Black History Month, here’s our Q&A with O’Neal:
LACEY O’NEAL Q&A
Q: How did you get the job as head coach of Florida?
A: It was an intervention of God, as I called it. I was here in Washington, DC, and a young woman by the name of Rose Allwood went down there with Brooks Johnson. He took a number of athletes there. At that time, he felt like he would coach the women’s track and field team. When they got there, it turned out that dr. [Ruth] alexander wanted an athletics coach. Rose Allwood was on the [ITA] track team here in Washington DC, just like me. Rose called me and said they were looking for a track and field coach at the University of Florida. She told me that I had to apply. The family would be reunited again. I would be with Brooks. I will never forget that. It was a Saturday that I called the only number I had. I thought it was the University of Florida athletic office. It turned out to be Dr. Alexander’s office. She picks up on a Saturday, and I told her who I was, and we talked. She said, ‘you know what, this is interesting. I’m looking for an athletic trainer and I’ve only stopped by my office on my way to vacation to grab something. My four sons and my husband are sitting in the car. We are on our way to vacation. I won’t be back for two months, but if you can come here, I’d like to interview you. She told me when she would be back. I called her and she told me to get down. We immediately liked each other and she hired me on the spot. I would also get my master’s degree, since I was there. That’s what happened. I became the women’s head coach and also studied for my master’s degree. It was not an easy task.
Q: Do you remember what it was like when you took over the program back then?
A: I knew what I knew. I knew I had been a coach before. It wasn’t like I was new and didn’t know how to coach. I didn’t know all the events, but what I didn’t know I learned from my old coach, Brooks, and Donnis Thompson, my coach at the University of Hawaii. I learned from her that if you don’t know something, learn from someone who does. I was able to ask other athletes and coaches who had worked with girls I didn’t know much about. The hardest part was trying to give my attention to each event. I had no assistants. I was there alone. The men had assistant coaches. I kind of think at that time, to be honest with you, that we were ready to fail. And I’m not talking about me. We were new as coaches on this scale. But luckily, because I had coached in high school, it was easy for me to transition from coaching to college. What I found difficult, however, was that young women were used to male coaches, and sometimes they didn’t buy into a female coach easily because they didn’t give the coach credibility. I had been a two-time Olympian, and I did it the hard way. I had the references. There were also other factors. I was young. I was more or less not much older than some of my athletes. Looking back, I would say I was a bit immature. It could have led to a lack of respect that I was unaware of until I left.
Q: What led to your departure after only two seasons?
A: When I left there, to be honest with you, I left Florida with kind of an uncomfortable taste of the whole practice situation. Some things didn’t go the way I thought they should, and I will say a lot of that was down to my maturity and my relationship with some of the girls who would have preferred to have Brooks Johnson as their coach. There was some division there. I tried to be as fair as possible with my training, but there are always athletes who don’t always agree or always get along with their coach. It was unfortunate. My intention was to give everyone as much knowledge as possible, and some of it turned out pretty good and some of it didn’t.
Q: What are you doing today after so many experiences following your UF passage?
A: I did a lot. After that, I completely turned away from sports and joined the Peace Corps in The Gambia in West Africa. After that, I found myself a diplomat and I was assigned to Côte d’Ivoire and Burkina Faso. I was at the State Department for six years. Finally, back to Washington, DC, and now I’m a contract mediator. I am always busy. I’m 77 and I still exercise and try to stay as healthy as possible. What I do now, I re-affiliated with USA Track and Field as an alumni member. I work with this board. It is difficult for me to walk away from athletics or athletics. I don’t mind lending my knowledge.
Q: When was the last time you visited UF?
A: The last time I was there was when they had a University of Florida athletics alumni event. I was invited there with Jackie Gordon. We had a great time. And then she passed the next year [in 2015]. I haven’t been there since.
Q: How do you feel about Florida’s track program today compared to what you’ve been through?
A: There are many differences. First, they combined the programs. I think [Coach Holloway] trains men and women. Of course, everything has changed in terms of ease, in terms of scholarships. I think I was lucky if I had two or three scholarships to give away. It was hard to get the top mark. I had a lot of extras, which was great, but it took me a long time because I didn’t really know where to put some of those people. Some of the really good runners were going to the state of Tennessee. They had a very good outlet, as they had already started their summer track program. I think if I had stayed a little longer I would have asked Dr. Alexander if I could have had a summer athletics program. It would have helped a lot. The other thing that is different is the salary. I don’t even remember how much I was paid; it was tiny.
Q: What kind of resources did you have?
A: I wasn’t afraid to ask anything. I have a parking space right next to the men. I have a clubhouse. They had an old hut that was there, and it wasn’t used, so I asked if I could have it as a clubhouse. I also had the opportunity to bring my daughters into the training room. At first, they wouldn’t even think about the girls who would enter the training room. I’ve done a lot of things. I didn’t have to demand it. I just had to ask, and they had no problem giving it to me.
Q: Did Dr. Alexander’s death in 2020 bring back memories?
A: It hurt me so much. She was a fantastic woman. I loved him so much. She was always encouraging. Even talking about her now, I want to cry. She meant so much to me. She was very honest with me, very protective. She really made me feel wanted and appreciated.
Q: All these years later, how do you feel about your time as UF head coach?
A: It’s bittersweet. As I said, when I look back, there are some wonderful experiences they have given me. But I also felt that I had real negative things that kind of put a sour taste in my mouth because I always wanted to coach again. It is sad. But I’m still a Gator. We had a tagline – I think I made it up, I’m not sure – I’m a Lady Gator or something. It got stuck for a while. I loved all of my young girls, no matter how they felt about me. I really enjoyed being with them and at least trying to help them level up. They also helped me grow.