- The Washington Times - Monday, August 1, 2005

The boy stood on the sideline as his older brother, Eugene, worked with the track coach at Tulare (Calif.) High School. Eugene had been missing the high jump at four feet, and the goal was to discover why.

Finally, bored, the boy decided to try it himself while Eugene and the coach weren’t looking. Backing up a few yards, he sprinted toward the pit — and cleared the bar with inches to spare.

Rather than rejoice, young Bob Mathias was mortified. “Concerned that I had interfered in the coach-student relationship, not to mention that I had probably embarrassed my brother, I slinked away like a puppy from a newspaper,” he told a biographer years later.

Nonetheless Mathias was showing early proof that day in 1941 that one of the 20th century’s greatest athletes was waiting to emerge. Seven years later, on Aug.6, 1948, he became at 17 the youngest man ever to win an Olympic decathlon during the London Games. Four years later, he repeated the triumph at the Helsinki Games, cementing his status as a national hero.

Virtually forgotten now at 74 as he enjoys retirement in Fresno, Calif., Mathias ranked at mid-century with two other multi-sport icons: Jim Thorpe and Babe Didrikson Zaharias. At Tulare, he starred in basketball and football, as well as track and field. Later, between his Olympic victories, he played in the Rose Bowl with Stanford’s football team on Jan.1, 1952

Nor was jockdom his only area of expertise. When a movie was made of his life, “The Bob Mathias Story,” he played the title role as well as acting in other films. Elected to Congress as a Republican in 1966, he served four terms as one of the first sports stars to reach Capitol Hill. Still later, he was director of the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs and was elected to the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame.

As so often happens, Mathias’ early life gave no hint of what was to come. In childhood, he suffered from anemia that required him to eat special diets, use iron pills and take frequent naps to conserve his strength. He also ran the gamut of other illnesses in those days: measles, chicken pox, scarlet fever and whooping cough.

By the time he reached high school, Mathias still was battling chronic fatigue, but it didn’t stop him from going out for football, basketball and track. Between his freshman and sophomore years, all traces of anemia vanished, and he worked diligently to bulk up his body to 6-feet-2 and 190 pounds.

After his startling experience in the high jump at the age of 10, Mathias practiced over and over as the high school coach, Virgil Jackson, worked with him. When he became a teenager, Mathias spent summers lifting 100-pound bags of sulfur into crop-dusting planes and working out in his own backyard gym.

On the high school track team, Mathias concentrated on hurling the discus and running hurdles. Then, in the truest hokey Hollywood fashion, the team’s best high jumper was injured, and Jackson asked if anyone else was willing to replace him.

Of course, Mathias volunteered. In a meet the next day, he won the discus and hurdles — then cleared the high jump bar at 5-10.

Jackson was impressed, telling Mathias he might even be a candidate for the 1952 Olympics in four years.

Guess again, coach.

Understandably, Mathias wasn’t planning that far ahead. During the 1947-48 school year at Tulare High, he accumulated 1,268 yards running and passing as a single-wing tailback, averaged 18 points as captain of the basketball team and went undefeated in the hurdles. But now the pesky Jackson was suggesting he take up the incredibly difficult decathlon, which now includes the 100-meter dash, long jump, shot put, high jump, 400-meter run, 110-meter hurdles, discus, pole vault, javelin and 1,500-meter run.

Curious about his overall abilities, Mathias entered the Southern Pacific AAU Games with only three weeks to prepare. He read track manuals, learning the correct way to hold and throw the javelin — a new event for him. He studied books from the library on other events. He tried what today we would call psyching himself up.

Satisfied with his performance in the AAU event, Mathias traveled to Bloomfield, N.J., with the help of financial contributions from citizens of Tulare, for the Olympic trials. Unbelievably, the rookie long shot made the team — four years earlier than his coach had predicted.

At 17, he was the youngest U.S. athlete at the London Games. Competing in the decathlon against 37 opponents from 19 nations, he wasn’t given much of a chance, and he trained so hard that he incurred several nagging injuries. Between events, he covered himself with a blanket to stay warm in damp, chilly weather and concentrated on the next challenge.

After the first day of competition, the unknown American was third. The second day took an exhausting 12 hours because of rain and confusion on the track. The discus was Mathias’ best event, and he unfurled the best throw of the day at 144 feet 4 inches to take over first place overall.

The final event was the 1,500, contested in gathering gloom over a wet track at famed Wembley Stadium, which had no lights. Weary beyond belief, Mathias nonetheless staggered home first in 5:11 to assure his victory. In just his third decathlon, the teenager had registered a whopping 7,139 points — the only candidate to better 7,000.

In the next day’s New York Times, Allison Danzig described it this way: “In rain, on a track covered by water … in fading light … it was an amazing achievement.”

Indubitably.

Back home in Tulare, people celebrated wildly. Factory whistles and fire sirens blared for 45 minutes. A spontaneous victory parade clogged the downtown area and nearby highways. No wonder.

And when reporters in London asked Bob Mathias how he planned to celebrate, the young hero displayed an unexpected wit that would have done credit to Jack Benny, Bob Hope or Fred Allen.

“Well,” he said. “I’ll start shaving, I guess.”

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