Feb. 12, 2007
One may say that former Michigan State track and field standout Cheryl Gilliam followed the footsteps of her father, Wardell. He competed in track and field at Eastern Michigan University and later was inducted into the school's Hall of Fame. While she may have inherited his genes, Gilliam has certainly created her own path of success.
"I became involved in sports as soon as I was born with my dad taking us to all types of sporting events," said Gilliam. "But he never pushed us in any one direction."
It wasn't until the age of 12 that a love for the sport of track developed. In her hometown of Detroit, Gilliam watched her sister run with the Motor City Track Team and wanted to travel just like she did. She joined the squad and was taken under the wings of the older team members. Also looking out for her was Richard Ford, her first true coach, who helped to shape her love for track.
Gilliam experienced immediate success, winning her first national title in the summer of 1973 in Birmingham, Ala., at the United States Youth Games running the 220-yard dash. She added another national win to her belt when she won the 200 meter at the Junior Olympics in Memphis, Tenn., in 1976. Gilliam enjoyed her early success, but places the thrill with the experience.
"It was the thrill of traveling to different places and meeting new people," she said.
The first major obstacle Gilliam had to overcome came with her first untimely injury. At age 14 and just two weeks prior to the 1974 United States Youth Games - an event she was favored to win - Gilliam pinched a nerve and was unable to compete.
"That was my first major injury and I learned that you must work hard to recover and get back on track," said Gilliam. "That was tough for someone at my age, but it was part of my building blocks that I could learn to rely on."
Gilliam did recover.
The following year, as a freshman at Cass Tech High School, she went to the state track meet with only four teammates and won the state championship. This is where she learned that with hard work and an internal drive, you can achieve anything. And achieve she did.
Gilliam continued her successful track and field career in college as a member of the Spartan track and field squad. Over her career at Michigan State, which occurred prior to the official inception of women's athletics in the Big Ten and NCAA, Gilliam was a 13-time conference champion, the league's first four-time 200-meter dash champion, a two-time team MVP and All-American. In addition, she set six individual and nine relay records and qualified for the 1980 Olympic Trials. As a member of MSU's 1980 sprint medley relay team, she helped establish World, American, collegiate and school records in the event.
But perhaps her most defining moment came years later in 2003, when her collegiate achievements were acknowledged with induction into the MSU Athletics Hall of Fame.
Gilliam continues to represent the Spartans as a member on several university boards and committees today.
Outside of athletics, Gilliam has also found success professionally. She has more than 24 years of professional experience in the medical and food industries, having worked for Johnson & Johnson, Heinz, Sara Lee Bakery and Kraft Foods. She currently works at Kellogg in Battle Creek, Mich., in packaging innovation. One of Gilliam's most noted professional achievements are the seven patents granted to her by the United States Patent Office.
While her numerous accomplishments are something to be very proud of, Gilliam attributes where she is now to the experiences she had during college in East Lansing.
"I learned many wonderful life lessons at MSU that carry me today as a mother, friend, career person and community leader," said Gilliam. "I was fortunate enough to have influential mentors in my life and I was smart enough to listen to them."
Having had the benefit of strong mentors, Gilliam is now at a point in her life where she wants to share these experiences with the kids that are placed in her path and serve as a positive role model to them. While serving as President of the YWCA in Lake County, Ill., Gilliam notes she enjoys talking to young kids and telling them they can make a difference in their lives regardless of their current circumstances.
Taylor Sampson is one young lady to whom Gilliam serves as mentor. She is also Taylor's mother.
While her favorite sport is currently basketball, Taylor has shown she has also inherited the natural family running genes as well.
"I may have won my first national title at 13, but Taylor is more gifted," Gilliam said. "I look forward to seeing her growth and development over the years and I will always support her, even if she does not choose to focus on track."
Gilliam has also found time to lend support to the MSU Student-Athlete Support Services program. The program is dedicated to helping Spartan student-athletes excel academically and showcase these achievements. In 2005, it recognized Gilliam with the Student-Athlete Support Services Scholar-Athlete Alumnus Award.
But for Gilliam, the present time is one in which she continues to push forward. She believes there is more mentoring, more supporting and more cheering for the Spartans left to be done.
"There is a finish line in life, but it is quite a long way off for me. I can still hear good ol' coach Bibbs shouting, `Go, go, go...Drive, drive, drive!'"
And that's what she intends to do.
Running from one thing to the next.