As the first Black gymnast in UF history, Pam Titus set the bar for aspiring female athletes

<p>Pam Titus</p>

Pam Titus

One masterfully placed foot in front of the other, Pam Titus strode into sports history on the University of Florida gymnastics floor more than three decades ago. Each step was as meticulous for the athlete as it was meaningful for the audience.

A three-time all-American Gator gymnast, Titus was the first Black gymnast in the history of the school, the first and only Black woman on her UF gymnastics team at the time, and the first gymnast in the history of the National Collegiate Athletics Association to earn a perfect 10.0 mark in the floor exercise competition. Titus knew that all these firsts would last in the minds of those who followed in her pointed footsteps.

“All of us have taken steps, no matter how small, to help the next generation get beyond oppression and injustice,” said Titus, who is now a human resources professional and philanthropist in Huntsville, Alabama. “I realize I opened that door and broke down those barriers that existed so that the young Black women behind me could step through and shine.”

Stepping through

“She shouldn’t be here” was often whispered behind Titus’ back by her gymnast peers when she was just a child – a snub tinged with discrimination that might have derailed other young athletes. But Titus was fearless, unfazed, knowing that the negative chatter was rooted in jealousy. So she used it as fuel.

“I kept my head down,” Titus said. “And I took all that envy and jealousy to UF with me many years later. I got a full scholarship. I was the first and only Black woman on the gymnastics team. And my focus, discipline, and hard work scored me a perfect 10.0.”

Being the only Black woman on a sports team was not an unfamiliar experience for Titus, who grew up with her two parents and three brothers in the mostly white city of Holbrook, New York (a community bordering the eastern side of Long Island).

“We were the only African Americans, pretty much, that we knew there, so I had always embraced being someone different and doing things that were different in my community,” Titus said. “I was able to embrace who I was and what I was doing from the time I was a little kid. Also, I had the support of my mom and dad, who were always there for me.”

Encouraged by her parents – Panamanian immigrants – to attend college after graduating from Catholic high school, Titus initially chose UF for the warm southern weather. Already an accomplished dancer and high school all-around gymnastics champion, Titus went on to build an incredible Gator gymnastics resume at UF.

As a college senior, she claimed top honors in five floor competitions, including her record-breaking flawless routine at the O'Connell Center against Auburn University in January 1991. Her work on the balance beam, vault, and uneven bars scored her numerous career-best and season-best wins.

Academically, Titus earned a bachelor’s degree in public relations from UF in 1991, followed by a master of business administration degree in international business from Lynn University and a master’s certification in human resources. She also coached gymnastics while building her professional career and volunteering for nonprofit organizations.

“For some reason, I’ve always had the ability to be focused, be driven, and be empowered to do whatever it is I chose to do. And I’ve watched so many young women, especially on the gymnastics team at Florida, do that same thing,” Titus said. “I feel like I did open the door for the young women coming up behind me. It gave them the tools and the strength and the voice that they needed to do all the things they did. And Florida has built an incredible winning gymnastics program that has been led by several Black women over the last two decades.”

Standing up

Continuing to lead, Titus has spent her post-college years paying it forward in her community, motivated by her faith and bolstered by her trailblazing athletic fame. She distributes food to the less fortunate, helps educate women who are returning to the workforce, and teaches children about the Bible, working with organizations like Awana and Mercy Corps.

“I think, as a society, we’re only as strong as our weakest voice, and we shouldn’t have any weak voices in our community. I think people need to come together more, invest in each other, and really start to inspire the next generation of leaders,” Titus said. “I feel like I can make a difference. If I help one person today, I’ve done my job. That’s all the reward I need.”

It is a philanthropic tradition that Titus has been cultivating since her days as a UF student.

“I remember, when I was at Florida, I used to go to visit less fortunate kids in town and teach them how to read,” Titus said. “To have that kind of an impact on children is very humbling. I’ve always enjoyed helping people, just to be able to say to them, ‘Here’s a hug.’”

Later, as a gymnastics role model at UF, Titus experienced the same fulfillment, receiving feedback from the up-and-coming female athletes on the competition floor.

“I think Trinity Thomas said it best when I was back at Florida a couple years ago, when she said to me, ‘You made this possible for us.’ Those are words that I carry in my spirit,” Titus said. “It takes my breath away because, in my brain, I always thought, ‘Are you really helping?’ It’s not until somebody brings it to your attention that yes, maybe you can make a difference. So I want to keep inspiring people to believe in something.”

To that end, Titus recently gave a speech at her church, just as Black History Month was coming to close in February and giving way to Women’s History Month in March.

“Many have gone before us and maybe have made it easier for us to chart our path. Maybe we have made it easier for the next generation to chart their course,” Titus said. “As children, we only know what we see. As a young child, I didn’t see people that looked like me being praised or celebrated on TV. But it’s important to have positive reflections of ourselves. Our children need to see strength and heroism, and they need to see it in us.”

Abby Weingarten March 19, 2024