With the Summer Olympics in full swing, the Mount Airy Museum of Regional History soon will unveil a display dedicated to a local resident who competed in the 1960 Rome Games as a 19-year-old.
Derek Higgs was born in Miami but grew up in the Bahamas. Later in life he would meet a Surry County native when she traveled to the Bahamas for work. They would get married and retire to Mount Airy.
It’s been 56 years, but Higgs remembers well the trip he took to Italy to be part of the Bahamian sailing team.
While some Olympic athletes must be victorious at qualifying events, Higgs said it was a little simpler to garner a spot on the sailing team in 1960.
“There were only 20 or 30 members of the sailing club,” explained Higgs. “Some of them couldn’t take the time off work or couldn’t make it.”
Higgs was 19, however, which meant he could make the time for the Olympic travels.
“I guess it was a matter of knowing the right people and being in the right place.”
Though he was young, he still brought much sailing experience to the team. He had been sailing since the age of four.
“In the Bahamas you sail and you swim,” said Higgs. “You learn to sail and swim before you get your first pair of shoes.”
So in 1960, Higgs and about 20 teammates, alternates and managers boarded a plane in Nassau headed for Rome. There are two moments that are ingrained in his memory.
“Of course, I remember walking around the stadium at the opening ceremony,” recounted Higgs.
However, he also played witness to history when he watched light-heavyweight Cassius Clay — the man who would rename himself Muhammed Ali after converting to Islam — win a gold medal by decision over Poland’s Zbigniew Pietrzykowski.
During those same games, American Wilma Rudolph won three gold medals in sprint events, despite battling polio as a child. She wore a metal brace on her left leg from age four to nine, which many believe was an inspiration for “Forrest Gump.”
After about two weeks in Rome and Naples, Italy, where the sailing competition took place, Higgs headed back to the Bahamas, to continue his formal education and become a well-known real estate attorney on the island.
He married Mary Brock, who has some interesting experiences of her own.
“She’s a very good pilot,” remarked Higgs.
According to museum executive director Matt Edwards, Mary Higgs earned her pilot’s license initially so she could occassionally fly to Miami for lunch. Eventually she found her way into some competition of her own, racing planes.
The couple made their life in the Bahamas until Derek Higgs was ready to hang up his attorney’s hat.
“There was this theory the world was going to end on Jan. 1, 2000,” explained Higgs. “I retired from my law practice on Dec. 31, 1999.”
Then they were met with the decision as to where to live out their days. The couple decided to move to Mary’s hometown, and they made the move in October of 2000.
It was a move Derek Higgs said he doesn’t regret.
“We love it here,” said Higgs. “It’s my wife’s hometown. The people couldn’t be nicer, and the town couldn’t be better.
Edwards said the Higgs Olympic experience exhibit should be available for public viewing on Saturday or Sunday. It will be part of the local sports exhibits on display at the museum.
“We designed in the ability to make changes to better serve the community,” explained Edwards. “It’s designed to provide that core content with supporting stories which can be changed out.”
Edwards said the Higgs exhibit seems a fitting addition to the museum, since he is a Surry County resident with an Olympic connection. Higgs ought to be part of the story the museum tells.
According to Higgs, the teal sport coat he wore at the 1960 Olympics will be included in the exhibit. There will also be a picture he and some of his teammates took at the Nassau airport, his participant medal and his credentials which allowed him to gain entry into Olympic events on display.
Andy is a staff writer and may be reached at 415-4698.