Willie James Smith III (1956-2020) was a renowned track and field athlete who competed from the mid-1970s through the early 1990s, winning medals and events in high school, at Auburn University, and most notably a gold medal in the 4×400-meter relay at the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, California.
Smith was born in Rochester, Pennsylvania, on February 28, 1956, to Willie James Smith Sr., a contractor, and Shirley Smith, who worked in the airline industry. He had a sister and a brother. His parents settled in Uniondale, New York, where Smith attended high school and excelled in track and field sprinting events, acquiring the nickname “The Long Island Express.” During his senior season at Uniondale High School, Smith tied national high school records in the 100- and 200-yard dash, feats that earned him the honor of being named Track and Field News’s “High School Athlete of the Year” in 1974.
Smith’s high school athletic accomplishments drew the attention of many college recruiters, including Auburn University track and field coach Mel Rosen, who offered Smith a full scholarship with the intention of having him compete in the 100-meter dash. Soon after arriving at Auburn in Lee County, Smith began to compete in the 400-meter and the 4×400-meter relay in order best to help the team. Smith would go on to win the Southeastern Conference (SEC) championship in the 400-meter event in 1976, a feat he repeated in 1977 and 1978 in both the indoor and outdoor competitions. Smith’s senior season at Auburn was especially outstanding, as he captained Auburn to the SEC Indoor Championship and finished as runner up in the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) finals in the 400-meter event. In 1978, he also set a personal-best time of 44.73 seconds in the 400-meter. During his time at Auburn, Smith would go on to win seven All-American honors in track and field and was named Auburn University Athlete of the Year in 1978. While at Auburn, he met his future wife, Dona, with whom he would have one daughter. Dona Smith would serve as the head of the children’s department of the Homewood Public Library for 23 years. In 1978, Smith graduated from Auburn with a degree in communications.
Encouraged by his early success at the collegiate level, Smith began to compete on the national and international level in the 400-meter and 400-meter relay. In 1977, he won a silver medal at the Summer Universiade (present-day World University Games), and soon after graduation in 1979, he won a bronze medal at the Pan American Games, a gold medal in the 4×400-relay at the World Cup, and a gold medal in both individual and relay 400-meter events at the U.S. Track and Field Championships. These accolades pointed to certain success in the 1980 Olympics in Moscow.
For Smith, however, Olympic glory would have to wait. Although he was named an alternate on the 1976 Team USA Olympic squad in the 4×100-meter relay, he did not compete that year. In the months leading up to the 1980 Olympics, he won gold medals in the 400 meter and 400-meter relay in Tokyo and finished second in the 400 meter in the Olympic qualifier. He was expected to win two gold medals as part of the 1980 team, but the United States boycotted the Moscow Olympics that year. Smith finally was able to compete at the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984 and brought home a gold medal in the 4×400-meter relay. In 1988, at the age of 32, Smith finished in eighth place in the Olympic trials and narrowly missed a place on the team. Never one to give up the chance of competing, in 1996, at the age of 40, Smith made one last effort to make the U.S. Olympic Team, a story chronicled in the New York Times, but he failed to qualify. Although he did not make the team that year, he was honored by being asked to carry the Olympic torch.
After retiring from track and field competition, Smith used his academic training in communications to work as the news director for CBS and NBC affiliates in Birmingham, Jefferson County, and served as an analyst for NBC Sports at the Goodwill Games. Smith also worked in the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s preventative medicine department and founded Sportspeed Development, a training camp in Birmingham aimed at helping young athletes gain collegiate scholarships and professional athletes compete at a higher level.
Smith’s stature as an outstanding athlete has been recognized several times. In 1997, he was inducted into the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame and had a star in his honor placed in Auburn University’s Tiger Trail walk of fame. In addition to his Alabama accolades, Smith was inducted into the Beaver Falls Region Hall of Fame in Pennsylvania and the New York State Public High School Athletic Association Hall of Fame. Smith also served as a marshal at the 2000 Olympics in Atlanta, and, in 2008, he received a Congressional Gold Medal as a member of the 1980 Olympic team.
Smith died on November 7, 2020, in Sylacauga, Talladega County. Smith’s daughter, Kendal Smith, graduated from Auburn University with a degree in architecture and is an architect with the University of Alabama at Birmingham.