We all have memories of Olympic moments watched on television, and we all know the names and accomplishments of certain legends from the past. Nevertheless, with so many events and such a wide a disparity in coverage, many great Olympians slip from the national memory with the passage of time and many others don’t get the attention they deserve in the first place. So while this year’s summer games unfold, here, in alphabetical order, is a reminder of five of our nation’s greatest Summer Olympians who are in those categories.
It’s hard to believe that a two-time decathlon gold medalist who went on to serve four terms in Congress could simply vanish in the mist of time, but that seems to have happened to Bob Mathias.
Within living memory I can recall when his name was commonly known; when no conversation about great Olympians could take place without his name being brought up; when nobody could refer to Bruce Jenner as
best decathlete because everyone knew that title belonged to Mathias. However, it
has been years since I last heard him mentioned either in public or private.
The decathlon is widely considered the event which determines the world’s best athlete, and it has long been one of the Olympics’ premier spectacles. Mathias won it in 1948 and 1952, and to this day is the only person ever to win it more than once. This accomplishment is even more impressive when you consider that 1948 was the first year he started doing the decathlon, and that his margin of victory in 1952 was a staggering 912 points.
On an interesting side note, at the same time Mathias was making headlines as a decathlete, he played fullback for Stanford and led them to the 1952 Rose Bowl, becoming the only person ever to compete in the Olympics and Rose Bowl during the same year.
Now 74, Mills is an Oglala Sioux who became an orphan at the age of 12 and was raised by his grandmother on
South Dakota’s Pine
Ridge Indian Reservation. From that humble beginning, he earned an athletic
scholarship to and emerged as
an All-American cross-country runner. He entered the Marine Corps after college
and was serving as a first lieutenant in the reserves when he appeared in the
1964 Olympics. Kansas
Mills competed in the 10,000-meter run and was not even among the favorites. Australian Ron Clarke held the world record and was heavily favored to win, while the only people expected to challenge him were the Soviet Union’s Pyotr Bolotnikov and
Murray Halberg. When the day came, however, it was Mills who left his mark on
Entering the final backstretch of the nearly half-hour race, he was in third place and boxed in behind Clarke and Mohammed Gammoudi of
Unable to make any move on the more advantageous inside lanes, he bounced
outside, to lane three, and sprinted for the finish line with laser-like focus.
He passed both Clarke and Gammoudi and broke the tape in an Olympic-record time
Mills is the only American in the 116-year history of the Olympics to ever win the 10,000 meters, and his story was riveting enough for
The 1983 movie Running Brave,
starring Robby Benson, was about him and rekindled interest leading up to the
Los Angeles Olympics. Maybe it is time for a re-release…
During the Cold War, Eastern European Communist regimes ran orchestrated steroid programs to boost their countries’ medal counts and project an image of ethnic supremacy. Unsurprisingly, they seemed to own the wrestling events and it was considered a given that sports on the mat would be won by Soviets, Romanians, Bulgarians, etc. The thought of an American wrestler winning gold didn’t feel realistic.
Then John Smith arrived on the scene. An
Oklahoma native who had won NCAA
championships at , Smith sent waves
through the international wrestling scene with his exploits at the 1988 Seoul Olympics.
Competing in the freestyle event and weighing in at less than 137 pounds, he
suffered a fractured nose during a preliminary round victory over Bulgaria’s
Simeon Shterev, and kept plugging along as the rounds went by. In the gold
medal match he shut out the Oklahoma
Stepan Sarkisyan by a score of 4-0. In the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, he won gold
again by defeating Iran’s
With four world championships to his name in addition to his Olympic golds, Smith is thought of in wrestling circles as the best in American history, perhaps even the best in world history. He returned to
as its coach and
five of his teams have won national championships. It’s just that competitive
wresting, as opposed to WWE wrestling, receives almost zero media attention. Oklahoma
Amy Van Dyken
You would think the American woman with the most swimming gold medals in Olympic history, and also the most gold medals in a single Olympics, would be widely recognized for years after her achievements. Oddly, you would be wrong.
Maybe it’s because Amy Van Dyken comes not from the usual swimming hotbeds of
and Florida, but from land-locked Colorado. Maybe it’s
because she doesn’t possess the expected look of a swimmer, whatever that
means. But regardless of the reason, there should be no doubt that she is one
of the most accomplished female athletes in American history.
Van Dyken won four gold medals in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics -- the same number that Janet Evans won during her entire career -- yet Evans, who did not win a single medal in those games, continued to receive the lion’s share of media coverage during them. Van Dyken suffered numerous injuries between those games and the ones in
Sydney in 2000, yet she still managed to earn
a pair of golds in the latter. Her six career golds are the most ever won by an
American woman in any sport, in either the summer or winter games.
If everything else was equal, John Woodruff would be remembered as one of the most significant Olympic heroes in American history. But everything else is not equal, because he happened to make his appearance the same year as Jesse Owens.
games are remembered as the ones in which Adolf Hitler expected German athletes
to dominate and confirm his vision of Aryan superiority -- only to see that
vision shattered when Germany’s
best were repeatedly beaten by Owens, who was not only an American but a black American to boot.
As rightful as Owens’s place in history is, he was neither the only black American nor the first black American to win gold in
Woodruff struck gold first, so it was he who originally got under Hitler’s skin
and caused butterflies to unsettle der Fuhrer’s stomach. A freshman from the
University of Pittsburgh when those Olympics took place, he came from behind to
win the 800-meter run in what was considered one of the most exciting races
Trapped on the inside by other runners on the first lap, he later remarked, “I knew that the rules of running said if I tried to break out of a trap and fouled someone, I would be disqualified…but I had to do something.” What he chose to do was very unusual for a runner, especially in a relatively short race: He stopped and let everyone get ahead of him, then started running again in the hope of passing the entire field. Incredibly, it worked, and as described by the New York Times, “with his stride of almost 10 feet, Woodruff ran around everyone else. He took the lead, lost it on the backstretch, but regained it on the final turn and won the gold medal.”
He passed away in 2007 at the age of 92, having been the last living member of that supreme group of athletes who upstaged the Nazis in their own back yard. It’s a shame that Woodruff’s passing did not receive greater attention in the press.