Willie James Smith III reached the track and field mountaintop the only way he knew how — with speed, precision and relentless dedication.
Smith, a Uniondale High School graduate who was known as "The Long Island Express," won an Olympic gold medal at the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles as part of the U.S. men's 4x400 relay team.
Smith's gold-medal moment was years in the making and the result of hard work and perseverance. A track star at Uniondale, Smith went on to Auburn University in Alabama, where he was among the school's most decorated runners. He then endured two Olympic disappointments before finally getting the chance to run at the Games.
"It made Willie feel like [after] all of the years of running, he had been acknowledged," said his wife, Dona Smith of Alabama. "He had his opportunity to run in the Olympics, and I think Willie was just thrilled out of his mind for that. He was finally stepping on that [track] in front of the Olympic crowd and could participate. The gold medal was just icing on the cake."
Smith died suddenly on Nov. 7 in Alabama, where he had lived since college, his family said. He was 64.
"He was always so competitive," said Antonio McKay, Smith’s teammate on the gold medal Olympic relay. "Every race you ran against him, you knew you were going to have to run."
Smith, while still competing for Auburn, was selected as an alternate on the 4x100 relay team at the 1976 Games in Montreal but never participated. In 1980, Smith finished second at the U.S. Olympic trials in the 400 meters, only to have the United States boycott the Games in Moscow to protest the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan.
Smith was an alternate again in 1984, but this time he had a chance to run in the early heats. After his teammates ran the 4x400 final in 2 minutes, 57.91 seconds, Smith got his gold.
"He looked more like a 100, 200 runner than a 400 runner because he was so stocky and powerful," said McKay, 56, of Georgia. "He was really old school, like athletes you don’t see any more — worked hard, dedicated, just a great person."
Born Feb. 28, 1956, in Rochester, Pennsylvania, Smith moved to Uniondale at 5, his family said. While at Uniondale High School, he gained prominence by tying the national high school records in the 100-yard and 220-yard dash and was nicknamed "The Long Island Express," according to The New York Times. He was named the 1974 National High School Athlete of the Year by Track and Field News.
Smith’s success continued at Auburn, where he won two NCAA indoor championships in the 440-yard dash and was a five-time SEC champion in the same event. He was named Auburn’s Athlete of the Year in 1978 and after graduation, he won a bronze in the 400 meters at the 1979 Pan American Games, according to a news release from the school.
Smith’s outdoor 400-meter time of 44.73 seconds stood as the school record for 13 years and is still the fourth fastest time in Auburn history, according to the release.
He was inducted into the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame in 1997, along with baseball Hall-of-Famer and Alabama native Ozzie Smith. He was also honored in the Auburn University Tiger Trail, a walk-of-fame style outdoor tribute to the school’s greatest athletes.
Smith competed regularly until the early 1990s and tried to make a comeback at age 40 before the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. He did not qualify for the Games but did set a since-broken masters record in the 400 meters, according to the release.
After retiring from competition, Smith worked in television and trained youth and high school athletes in Alabama, some under the umbrella of his own company, Sports Speed Development, his family said.
"He had a heart of gold," said Jennifer Chandler, a friend and Olympic gold diver. "He was wonderful with children. He was motivational. He shared great inspirational messages about working hard and setting goals. He was just an ordinary person who achieved extraordinary things because he had a goal and he worked really hard."
In addition to his wife, Smith is survived by daughter, Kendal Smith of Alabama; parents, Shirley Smith of Oklahoma and Willie J. Smith Jr. of Hempstead; brother, Johnny Smith of Oklahoma; and sister, Sabrina Smith Scott of Queens. A celebration of life will be held at a later date, Dona Smith said.