Benita Fitzgerald Mosley won three consecutive NCAA outdoor championships in the women’s 100-meter hurdles while at the University of Tennessee. In 1984 she graduated with an Industrial Engineering degree and later that summer became just the second American woman to win Olympic gold in the event. She has worked as an engineer, with Special Olympics, in cable television and, at the time of this interview, as the Chief of Sport Performance for USA Track & Field. Fitzgerald Mosley’s father passed away in June of this year, and she and her family have since moved to Colorado where she is the new Chief of Organizational Excellence for the United States Olympic Committee.
I’ve been claiming 50 all year. I’ve been telling audiences that when I speak, to not let it be a secret and just let it out. Because it blows my mind.
I’ve been looking at other women that are in their 50s and kind of gauging, Do they act differently? Dress differently? Is it time to cut my hair? You know, all those things to try to prepare myself. Should I wear this? Should I act like this? Should I not tell people? Tell people? And I thought, Well, I’m more in the public than most 50-year-olds, and it’s kind of hard to keep it a secret. So I just decided to embrace it and claim it.
I gave a speech at the University of Tennessee a couple of weeks ago. It was the 50th anniversary of African-American achievement at the University. So 50 years ago, on January 4th, three African-American students enrolled as undergraduates at UT for the first time, and two of the three were there at the celebration. They’re in their late 60s, and obviously alive and well and just like these healthy, wealthy 60 year olds. And so I announced to the audience, “We’re celebrating 50 years of achievement at Tennessee and it’s ironic that it will be my 50th birthday as well this year.” And the nice thing is, people come up and say, “Wow, you don’t look your age.” So it ends up being a boost to your confidence as opposed to the other way around [laughs].
If you think about someone like Helen Mirren, until recently she kind of had chin-length or a little bit longer hair. She just cut it shorter. I mean, she’s in her 60s now. But even though she’s got wrinkles and you look at her and you know she’s older, she’s youthful. In fact, there was a picture recently, in People or something, that had her in a bikini. And I thought to myself, She’s just not claiming this “I’m an old lady” thing. She’s got grayer hair, but she’s just who she is and she’s who she’s always been. And I think that’s how it should be transitioned. You’re just who you are, your best self, you know, whatever age that is.
I was talking to an athlete when I was in San Antonio, and she said, “When did you win your gold medal?” I said, “’84.” She said, “I was born in 1984.” So the athletes that I’m overseeing now were born just before or since I won my gold medal. So that’s very interesting.
I recognized as I was having a daughter at 42 that, if she waits until she’s 42, I will be 84 when I have grandchildren. She can’t wait until she’s 42 [laughs]. And my girlfriends are like, “So you’re encouraging your daughter to be a teenage unwed mother?” I’m like, “No! No!” I don’t want to go that far, but at the same time, you know, I’m going to really be pushing her at 27 to get a move on.
I was a late bloomer in that respect, and I’m fortunate enough to have two healthy kids at a later age for a mom. But, yeah, I did the math then.
But I have kind of been ahead of the curve in most… I mean, I got married young. The first time I got married at 22. And then I got divorced at like 28, and then got married again at 33, 34. And so I feel like I did some things earlier, but the kid thing was probably the thing I did the latest. I think marriage wasn’t late. It was kind of right on time for the second marriage.
But my career, I’ve always been doing things at a younger age than most people do, even though I got a late start because of my track career. But I accelerated through positions. I got to Director by the time I was 30. I was a CEO before I was 40. So I felt like I was ahead of the curve. A lot of people, I think, get to a mid-life crisis point at 50, where it’s like, “Oh my God, I haven’t done enough.” And I don’t. I feel very fulfilled in that my life is right where it should be at this moment.
I haven’t had any physical changes either, so I’m the same, you know, physiologically as I’ve pretty much been. Now there has certainly been some stupid stuff: I woke up Monday morning and I could hardly walk. I had to go speak and walk up on a stage and everything, and the whole back of my right leg was all just locked up. I mean, it was painful. And I was taking Ibuprofen and that didn’t take the pain away. And finally Monday night and Tuesday morning I actually massaged it, got in there good with my knuckles, and I broke it up. And it’s still sore but, you know, the pain is gone and I can walk with 100% full range of motion. And that kind of stuff: Where did it come from? Why was it there? What did I do? I think I tripped over the snowblower in the garage on Saturday or Sunday on my way out of the car, and I think that’s what triggered it all, some stupid thing like that. So I feel like, you know, I’ve just got to preserve my body.
We’re crossing over a proverbial threshold at that moment in time when that clock ticks. I can feel it, definitely.
I definitely want to be retired at 65. I want to be retired before 65. I want to be, sooner than later, at a place where I don’t have to hold down a big-time job at a big salary, that somehow financially either my husband’s gotten it done or—I don’t know—maybe I’ve written a book that has residuals that help me not have to do that. But something where I can devote more time to doing the stuff I really love and not have to endure the stuff that I don’t really like.
I want to be financially stable enough to just be able to pick and choose the projects I want to work on. Might I be getting paid for them? Yeah. But it would not be a 9 to 5 type job where I’m at someone else’s beck and call. I call the shots. I decide, Yes, I want to work on this project for six months. Almost like an actor does in selecting movies. I know it’s all hands on deck for three or four months. I’m away from my family or whatever, but then I can relax for six or nine months. I can settle in. You know, it’s basketball season so I can make sure I’m at all my son’s basketball games, or whatever it is. I want that freedom. I think, for me, retirement equals freedom.
I spoke at the Running USA Convention on Monday, and you’re introduced as Chief of Sport Performance and former this and that and the other, but the main thing is Olympic gold medalist. And Olympians give each other a hard time when we show up some place not looking good. You get talked about. You get joked about. I saw Carl Lewis the other day at the Melrose Games. He looked as good as he did when he was on the track running. I mean, that man works out. And his main source of income is public speaking. And so, you know, he wants to project that image of “I’m Carl Lewis, the 10-time Olympic gold medalist,” not “I’m Carl Lewis, I used to do that and I’m a big, fat slob now.” So he takes great pride in the way he looks and great pride in presenting that image, and he gets paid well for it, I guess.
As a woman you feel that pressure anyway. I think it was Joan Collins who said, “Being born beautiful is like being wealthy and getting poorer and poorer as each day passes.” And I thought, It’s kind of like an athlete’s body. You’re at the peak of physical specimen when you’re competing, and there is never a day in life when you will be that good again. Ever. So you just kind of have to say it’s kind of the body before I retired and the body after. So I’m trying to have my best after retirement at almost 50 body. And I’m realistic about it.
My parents are amazing people, and they really introduced my sister and I—I have a younger sister, almost six years younger—to as many things as we showed an interest in. Or they had an interest in for us. And I say that because my dad had very particular ideas about things he wanted us to at least try. I tried piano and violin before I settled on playing the flute and piccolo. And he played flute too, so that was fine with him. I settled on track, but in the meantime I tried majorettes and softball and gymnastics, all of which I was really horrible at. So if I showed an interest in something they would support it, 100%, and so I got to try all kinds of different things.
My son grabbed onto basketball pretty early and, although I still am trying to introduce him to other things, that seems to have pretty much taken over his sports life. I, at 12, just found track, whereas my son’s been playing ball since he was 6. I’m sure in his mind he can see himself play in the NBA someday. But I didn’t see that because there was not one singular thing at 7 or 8 that I saw myself doing 20 years later. I just didn’t have that. And my life is so not that. And so much so that if you ask me what my next career move is, where I’d like to be, what do I want to do, I have no clue.
Accidental is too loose. But as opportunities, or in some cases the mood, hit me, I decide what’s the next thing I want to do. But it’s mostly as the opportunities present themselves.
You know, in track there’s such a thing as a personal best or PR, personal record. And I’m kind of always in pursuit of that. And so maximizing my personal potential translates into maximizing the potential that exists in the particular organization that I work for, maximizing the potential of the people who work for me. And I think if you come to an endeavor with that spirit, good things happen.
The next two years I’ll be leading our team to the Worlds and to the Olympics and getting my staff and athletes motivated and excited and getting programs in place to help them maximize their performance. And it’s just little by little, steady as she goes. Just trying to do the right thing, do the right thing, do the right thing.
I’ve always felt like I’ve had this guardian angel kind of with me, just kind of helping the opportunities show up. I mean, I just kind of think the guardian angel is God and, you know, it’s my belief, ultimately, that He’s in control, not me. And so doing my personal best means maximizing the opportunity that God gave me and not doing it for my own purposes.
I was fortunate enough, right after I won my gold medal—I don’t know, it’s probably divine intervention more than anything—that I moved from Knoxville, went to the University of Texas where my coach had moved, and I met the governor or the mayor or something. They gave me the key to the city. They did all this stuff. I mean, it’s within three or four months after I win my gold medal, right? So the University opens their arms. I get to train there as if I was a student-athlete at the University of Texas. It was wonderful.
So I meet the Chamber of Commerce guys. They say, “Hey, come work here for a little bit while I try and find you a part-time job as an engineer.” So I did that. And then I went to work for Tracor Aerospace full-time for a little while and then they said, “Well, we do the Olympic Job Opportunities Program.” So they paid me for full-time and let me work half-time. And so I got to ease into this corporate environment as an athlete first. I got to work as an engineer part-time, but still run track. And so for four years really I just eased into it.
I finally said, “Okay, it’s 1988.” I told myself I was going to retire in ’88. I’m done. I’m going to work full-time. That was kind of a rude awakening. To do that full-time and not be able to, on the weekend, you know, in the summer, run to Germany and find a meet to compete in. You know, there was no spring break, no Christmas break [laughs]. That drudgery of the day in, day out in a job really bored me to tears. I would actually fall asleep at my desk every once in a while. If I’d stayed with engineering I would not have been successful. I just wouldn’t have.
I got the opportunity to go work with Special Olympics, and it dawned on me that I could actually have a career in sports and not have to train every day. That’s when I got excited about going to work on a day in, day out basis. It was nice because it was a charity, where it’s altruistic, and so you can think of it less as a job, that I’m there to help other people, too.
I was a regional director, so I had thirteen states and I got to move about. It wasn’t sitting still all the time. I was in charge of overseeing each of those thirteen states, so I got some of the business, I got some of the administration, I got some of the sport. I got it all. I was in the office with Eunice and Sargent Shriver – God rest his soul – every day, so I was kind of mentored by them. It was a really, really fun time. I really was passionate about it, and I loved what I was doing. They talk about finding your passion, and that, to me, was it. I couldn’t just be sitting there reading software documents on a Seebold Submarine. That just wasn’t going to cut it for me.
Again, it’s just one of those things, serendipity, luck, faith, God, all of the above. I just look at those things in my life and think to myself, How on earth did that happen? Like, Did that just happen?
I understand that I’ve been truly blessed.
I’m one of those people in the sandwich generation. I’ve got young children, younger than most 50-year-olds probably have. And I have older parents, probably older in some cases, than most 50-year-olds have. My parents are 80 and 81, and both of them have dementia at some level, but they are still living on their own together.
At some point it just starts to go downhill really, really fast. And for some people more than others. For my mother it just didn’t happen until the last 12 months. You know, it happened at 79 ½. For my dad it was probably more like 75. Physically they’re doing very well, but that one aspect, not so good. So I think about aging more than death. And again, that could be because that’s what happens in my family. I’ve got three aunts that are in their 90s. My dad is one of eight and my mom’s one of 11. There are four left on her side and six left on my dad’s side, and everybody’s in their 80s and older.
I mean, my dad was rollerblading at 65 and travelling the world, so it happened later. And, you know, they say 50 percent of the people 80 years old or older will have some level of dementia. We see them every Sunday: go to church, go back to their house and laugh and talk and play. They see their grandkids. They interact. My mother went to Tennessee with me a couple of weeks ago.
Her short-term memory is gone. She’ll tell you something and then five minutes later she’ll tell you the same thing. But, you know, she’s interacting with the world. And she has a school that’s named after her on a street that’s named after me, which I think is probably unprecedented. And she gets to interact with those children.
So do they have some dementia? Yeah. But do I want to not be them at 80 and 81? No. They have a wonderful life. They’re happy. People tell me, “I cannot believe how well they get around.” 80 and 81. They don’t use walkers. They don’t use wheelchairs [laughs]. They’re prancing. Your mother has her high heel shoes on. They look beautiful. They’re unbelievable, you know.
So yes, I’m fearful that I’ll have Alzheimer’s. My sister and I talk about it all the time. But I think if it’s like that, if I’m living their life at that age, I can’t ask for more.
I’ll part with a verse from the Bible: “To everything there is a season, a time for every purpose under Heaven.” I feel like I’m in a good season now, and then I’ll transfer to a different season, and that’ll be fine too. I don’t resist the change. I anticipate that there will be change. I’m open to it. I even try, in some cases at least, to set the table for it. You know, some people want to live in California where the weather’s the same all the time. I like the seasons. I like the change. I like the variety, obviously. And so I’m open to it.