Carolyn Wood: 70+ year-old Olympian Faces Triumphs and Trials with the Determination of Youth

by Audrey May | photos courtesy of Carolyn Wood


(Pictured above: At age 65, Carolyn Wood walked the Camino de Santiago de Compostela (Spain) in hopes of reawakening the youthful determination and resilience that took her on the road to Rome and gold at the 1960 Olympics. Along the way, she encounters fear, fatigue, pain and loss but  finds them worth the rewards of discovery.) 


What keeps you going when you think you can’t go on? For teacher and writer Carolyn Wood, the unexpected end of a 30-year relationship forced her to rely on her inner strength and the discipline of pushing her body to its limits. A 1960 Olympic gold medal swimmer at age 14, Wood fought through her later-life grief and loss with the determination, hiking the grueling 500 mile Camino de Santiago de Compostela across Spain.

Her memoir, Tough Girl, recounts some of Wood’s’ life challenges – learning to love and excel at swimming after being terrified of drowning, navigating a “girl next door” adolescence peppered with a mother’s breast cancer and father’s gambling addiction, experiencing both triumph and defeat at the Olympics while hiding her attraction to other girls, early marriage and losing custody of her toddler son as she came out as a lesbian, and finally coming to embrace an active and productive adult life.

Woods returning to the United States from the 1960 Rome Olympics wearing her gold medal as part of
the 100-meter freestyle relay team. As a young child, she had learned to love and excel at swimming, even
after being terrified of drowning.


But in her early 60s, Wood had to face what seemed unthinkable – the end of her relationship with her life partner – and she questioned whether she had the emotional stamina to  find a new life through her grief.

Eventually, Wood turned to the solitary experience of a centuries-old pilgrimage through the rigorous Spanish terrain to confront her fears and return to herself. Comparing the discipline and discovery of the multi-week trek in her 60s to her teen years as a world-class athlete, Wood’s memoir of these experiences weaves a narrative with life lessons that are both engaging and inspiring.

Wood writes, “A good part of my childhood was spent practicing to win…Now on the Camino, I am in practice – not to be best or first but to be awake. The tough little girl I sought at the beginning of my walk … doesn’t exist in my past … but within me. She’s walked along the trails as she’s raced along the pool and will accompany me into the future. We have much to o er each other. Finish hard to the wall, she reminds me. Look. Stay awake, I reply.”


Carolyn Wood will read from her memoir, Tough Girl, November 12, 11:30 a.m. – 2:30 p.m. at OUTMemphis, 892 South Cooper.

The book signing event will be sponsored by the OUTMemphis Senior Services Committee and Meristem Women’s Book Club. Copies of the book are available for purchase; contact OUTMemphis (info@ for more information. For more information on Carolyn Wood, her life and book, see .