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Yvonee Lee Odom, grandmother to tennis superstar Coco Gauff, is herself a trailblazer

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

When Coco Gauff won the U.S. Open last month, she added to her family's list of accomplishments. Look no further than her maternal grandmother, a veteran teacher and student athlete who played a crucial role in desegregating schools in South Florida. Wilkine Brutus with member station WLRN has her story.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Oh, here it comes - boop (ph). Yeah.

(CHEERING)

WILKINE BRUTUS, BYLINE: It's the day after 19-year-old Coco Gauff won the U.S. Open, and the St. John Missionary Baptist Church in Boynton Beach might as well be her family's living room.

(APPLAUSE)

BRUTUS: The congregation are cheering along to TV highlights of her stunning comeback win.

JOHNNY BARBER II: I'm determined to be blessed in the field. Let me try one more time. Is there anybody, (singing) that can open up their mouth and shout it out - that I am determined?

BRUTUS: That's interim Pastor Johnny Barber II. The theme of this sermon focused on the tennis star's determination. Gauff's late great-grandfather was the pastor of this church for 40 years. The family has a long legacy of determined people, from athletes to community advocates.

YVONNE LEE ODOM: I'm just overwhelmed.

BRUTUS: Yvonne Lee Odom is Gauff's maternal grandmother.

ODOM: I'm overwhelmed. I got so many texts and calls, like I had won a championship.

BRUTUS: Odom is a trailblazer who desegregated Delray Beach public schools in 1961. She was a basketball player in Palm Beach County, and she was selected to leave the all-Black Carver High School to attend an all-white school. The local newspaper headline at the time read, Negro Student Integrated Quietly At Seacrest High.

ODOM: And I look at it like a Jackie Robinson.

BRUTUS: Odom told me she sees parallels between herself and the baseball legend who integrated the Major Leagues in 1947.

ODOM: Jackie Robinson was not the best ballplayer among all the African Americans that played the sport, but he was the best, they felt, that could endure the insults, which they knew were coming.

BRUTUS: She said she was deemed the ideal candidate to integrate Delray schools. She doesn't know why she was chosen. She just knows that school officials and her dad made the decision. He was a local pastor and teacher. Odom was 15 when she broke that barrier and remembers school administrators telling her to use the faculty bathroom in an effort to protect her.

ODOM: And I refused that. I told them, I'm using the same restroom everybody else is using.

BRUTUS: The school also wanted to keep her out of physical education classes for the same reason.

ODOM: They didn't put me in a PE class. Now, that, I didn't have a choice initially. But later on, I went to my counselor myself - told her, look, you got to put me in a PE class. Remember, I told you I was an athlete. And so they did that. But my feelings were of confidence.

BRUTUS: With that confidence, Odom eventually became a teacher in Delray Beach. The city recently honored her for her 45 years as an educator.

Coco Gauff mentioned her grandmother during a U.S. Open press conference. She said her own efforts to raise awareness about athletes' mental health pale in comparison to what Odom did.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

COCO GAUFF: She always taught me to process every situation with kindness and understanding, and I think for her to go through what she did during that time is something that I think what I do - putting out a tweet or saying a speech - is so easy compared to that. So that's why I have no problem doing the things that I do. And she's the - always reminds me that I'm a person first instead of an athlete.

BRUTUS: Her grandmother was always the well-known community leader and former athlete. And now, because of Coco's victories, Odom says things have changed a bit.

ODOM: Oh, people say, oh, that's Ms. Odom granddaughter, because people knew me in the community - all the people I taught and everything and Little League, football and all that kind of stuff. And then it got the reverse, so now I'm known as Coco's grandmother (laughter).

BRUTUS: Yvonne Lee Odom plans to continue sharing her story to inspire current student athletes.

For NPR news, I'm Wilkine Brutus in Delray Beach, Fla.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Wilkine Brutus
Wilkine Brutus is a multimedia journalist for WLRN, South Florida's NPR, and a member of Washington Post/Poynter Institute’s 2019 Leadership Academy. A former Digital Reporter for The Palm Beach Post, Brutus produces enterprise stories on topics surrounding people, community innovation, entrepreneurship, art, culture, and current affairs.