Feb. 11, 2011
By Larry Watts
Growing up in Brooklyn, N.Y., Odessa Smalls-Arthur confesses she wasn’t exactly the model student. Yet, through her years at Michigan State, she became a model of dedication.
“I was one week shy of my 21st birthday when I graduated from high school,’’ Arthur, now 46, says with a laugh. “I wasn’t a very dedicated high school student. I cut school a lot. I was 18 and they were trying to put me in 10th grade for a third time. My mother told me she wasn’t about to let me drop out and I was going to stay in school until I was 21.
“That’s when I decided it was time I had to do better. I not only went to school during the day, but I also started taking night classes and going to summer school. Finishing school was probably the best thing that ever happened to me because I realized I could do something if I put my mind to it. Even though I had a bad start, I realized where the finish line was.’’
On the track, she had little trouble finding the finish line. Because of grades and age, she never participated in a high school track meet. She was recruited by Club New York’s Hugo Puta, who happened to see her running in the streets at the age of 11. She did all her running for the club, mostly against college-age competitors. By her senior year of high school, she had 47 track scholarship offers.
“A lot of athletes get two, three or four scholarships offers, but I had 47! Everyone figured at the most I would go to a junior college,’’ Arthur says. “I was told I wasn’t smart enough to go to a four-year college.’’
Eliminating all the schools on the West Coast because they were too far from home, Arthur decided she was going to pack her bags for the University of Iowa. But her mother had a different idea.
“I was going to be a Hawkeye,’’ Arthur says. “But then (former Michigan State head coach) Karen Dennis came to see my mother. Once she sat on my mother’s couch in her living room - that was it. My mother said I was going to Michigan State because they were going to take care of me. It was the best choice of my life, because I really grew up.’’
Before heading to Michigan State, the most time Arthur had spent away from home was four weeks each summer through high school. Through the Fresh Air Fund, a program that takes inner-city youngsters and places them with suburban families, Arthur got a taste of life outside the hustle and bustle of the city. She spent four weeks each summer with the Haling family in Pittsfield, Mass.
“There were six kids in our family and we all registered for the program,’’ she says. “It was the best experience because I got a chance to see there was a life outside New York City. I really loved being with the Haling family and we looked for each other every summer. To this day, I still talk to them.’’
However, those summer visits with the Halings hardly prepared her for life on a daily basis in East Lansing, Mich. Midway through her freshman year, Arthur was ready to come home.
“I was 21 and legal when I came there, but I couldn’t handle it,’’ she says. “I was struggling with my classes and when I went walking on campus all I could see was snow. Now we had snow in Brooklyn, but Michigan had snow and more snow.
“I called my mother and told her I didn’t think I belonged here and couldn’t do it. She told me if I came back home, I wasn’t coming into her house. She wouldn’t even let me come home for Thanksgiving because she thought if I came home I would stay.’’
Things started to take a turn for the better once indoor track practice started. “Coach Karen had to love me like one of her kids,’’ Arthur says. “I couldn’t just be an athlete, I had to be part of her family because I felt so out of place.’’
Feeling more comfortable, Arthur still had the matter of schoolwork to handle.
“Remember, this was still the same kid who took forever to get out of high school,’’ she says. “I knew I wasn’t a strong student, but I was a dedicated one. I knew if I got kicked out of school, my momma was going to beat my behind. She often threatened to come to Michigan State in order to get me to buckle down and there was no way I was going to let her embarrass me like that.
“Everything I needed to do — study halls, tutors and extra credit — I took advantage of them in order to stay eligible. Once freshman year was over, I knew I had things straightened out.
“I wound up graduating (in criminal justice) with a grade point average of 2.0000,’’ she added. “If I breathed the wrong way, I would have been ineligible. So it just goes to show you no matter how people label you or tell you what you can’t do, if you really, really want something, nothing is unattainable. It may take longer than other people, but you can do it.’’
While she may have struggled in the classroom, life was a breeze for Arthur on the track and she ran like it. A sprinter extraordinaire, she blazed her way to a record 13 Big Ten titles, including all four 200-meter outdoor titles during her career. Since the conference no longer holds the events, she retired both the 60-yard dash (6.86 in 1987) and 300-meter dash (38.52 in 1985) records.
“Nobody is going to touch those,’’ says the former four-time All-American who still holds the 60-meter record (7.43 in 1987) at Michigan State. Her school honored her as the George Alderton Female Athlete of the Year in 1987.
“When I went to a track meet, Michigan State was guaranteed 30 points,’’ she says. “Indoors, I was going to win the 60 and 300 and we would win the 4x400 relay. Outdoors, I was going to win the 100 and 200 and we would win the 4x100 relay.’’
But getting Arthur to run further than 300 yards took some convincing by Dennis.
“I wanted nothing to do with the 400, yards or meters,’’ Arthur says. “Coach Dennis came up to me one day (during her junior season) and told me she was putting me in with our top girls for time trials in the 400. I knew what she was trying to do and I had it in my mind that I was going to hold back. But my heart took over in the last half of the race and I kicked past the rest of my teammates.’’
Arthur thought she had escaped the 4x400 relay team after Dennis didn’t put her in the lineup for the first few indoor meets. But 30 minutes before the finals of the event at the 1986 Big Ten Championships, Dennis told her to put on her spikes.
“I had already run the 60 and 300 and was dressed. I was tired,’’ Arthur says. “She (Dennis) just turned and walked away without giving me a chance to say anything. I cried like a baby to everyone else for the next 30 minutes. Plus, I was going to have to run against (Big Ten 400 champion) Adriane Diamond of Indiana on the anchor leg.
“I was so ticked off, I was going to let go Diamond for the first three or four strides, but pride would not let me do it. We got our sticks together and ran stride for stride the entire time. We both ran a 53.2 split and hit the finish line at the same time, but they gave her first on the dip. We had the whole stadium up on its feet.
“After the race, Adriane walked up to me and said, ‘Were you trying to beat me in my own event? I didn’t know you could run like that,’’’ Arthur added. “She couldn’t believe I stayed right with her the entire way. Coach Dennis walked up to me afterward and told me that was exactly the way she had planned it.’’
Following her graduation in 1987, a local writer asked assistant coach Bruce Waha about replacing Arthur. His response? “I’m happy to say we’ve recruited someone to take her place. Seventeen people.’’
After her freshman year, Arthur qualified for the 1984 U.S. Olympic Trials in the 100 meters. However, a pulled muscle in the prelims put her Olympic hopes on hold for another four years.
Her training for the 1988 Olympic Games was cut short by pregnancy and marriage to a man 20 years her senior in November of 1987, the first of four marriages for Arthur. It was the first of four marriages for Arthur, but is now happily married for the last 10 years.
Although she obtained a master’s degree in social work, Arthur claims it took the death of her brother Edward in 2005 to really get her life on track.
“At the time, we were living in DeWitt, Mich., and we had a house on the lake and owned a clothing store,’’ she says. “My brother, who had cancer, was a minister and kept telling me I needed to get saved. I was going to church regularly, but he kept telling me that wasn’t enough.
“My brother and I were very close. He died in February at the age of 37 and I couldn’t handle his death. From then until July, I would drink myself into oblivion. I didn’t go out, but I stayed home and drank one beer after another.
“That summer, our store was broken into twice in one week and we lost our entire inventory. Then a flood hit us and the ceiling of the business caved in. We were unable to meet our payments on the house and two cars, so we lost it all and moved back to Queens, N.Y.’’
In the process, Arthur claims she was saved and has become a minister in Greater SOY (Save Our Youth) Outreach Ministry, where both her mother and stepfather have been pastors.
“I can’t complain because I have five great children and a grandchild on the way,’’ she says. “My husband and I have had our financial struggles, but we have managed to stay strong and faithful.’’
She and her husband currently have their own photography business, specializing in family portraits, weddings and restoring old photos. Arthur is the editor and graphic designer. Twice a week, she also teaches an adult high school diploma program.
As for that young woman who graduated from high school one week shy of her 21st birthday, she is currently working on her doctorate degree in psychology.
“I’ve done three semesters already and my goal is to have it wrapped up by the time I’m 50, but I want it to be on my own terms,’’ she says. “I would like to go into private practice, where I could work as a consultant for a business or private college.’’
And if she isn’t already busy enough, Arthur has already penned five chapters for a book, ‘’Behold: God is Good,’’ which is based on her life experiences.
“I keep saying my life story could inspire somebody. My life is actually wonderful,’’ she says. “But I don’t want to finish it until after I receive my doctorate. When I publish it, I want it to have Dr. Odessa Smalls Arthur on the front.’’
And don’t think for one second that track career is over. Arthur is making plans to dust off her spikes this winter and start training for some masters races.
“Sprints only,’’ she says. “I can still run faster than some of my kids.’’