It wasn’t until Olympic silver medalist Nelson Vails was well into his storied career as a professional cyclist — winning races and acclaim around the world — that he realized his success on the track had earned him a place alongside other influential African-Americans in history.
“There was a gentleman by the name of Major Taylor who was actually the first African-American to win and race bicycles around the world,” Vails told a crowd Wednesday, Feb. 26, at the closing event of the Black History Month celebration at Lee College.
“I followed 98 years after, never knowing that a lot of cities and places he had been, I have blazed that same trail in the modern day,” said Vails, who became the first African-American to win an Olympic medal in cycling after finishing second in the individual 1,000-meter Match Sprints at the 1984 games in Los Angeles. “For some of the youths here, you also have that opportunity.”
The youngest of 10 children raised in a Harlem, N.Y., housing project, Vails began cycling as a New York City bike messenger and knew early on he wanted to go pro. Film clips of he and his fellow messengers darting through traffic were included in a never-before-seen compilation Vails prepared for his talk at the college, along with scenes from the Olympics and races he rode in Japan and throughout Europe.
Living and competing abroad was among the highlights of his cycling career and still sets him apart from others in the sport, he said.
“This was being part of history,” Vails said. “I was the only American, and to be black doing this — to speak the language, to have the whole house cheering for you — was an honor.”
Despite his achievements, Vails said he most feels the impact of his legacy when speaking at events like the reception at Lee College.
“To me, I was just another member on the national team and international team,” he said. “There were never any racial barriers and I never had any trouble along the way. That’s the neat thing about modern-day cycling: whether it was Japan, Italy, France or wherever I traveled around the world, I was just another one of them.”