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Richards, Robert Eugene ("Bob")

RICHARDS, Robert Eugene ("Bob")

(b. 20 February 1926 in Champaign, Illinois), versatile track and field athlete who was the only man to win two Olympic pole vault titles, and who used his ministry and celebrity status to motivate millions of Americans.

Richards was the third of five children of Leslie Richards, a telephone linesman, and Margaret Palfrey Richards, a homemaker. Even at a young age Richards was a prominent athlete in and around his hometown. For example, he was a finalist in the Illinois State Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA) junior diving championships; he won a city park tumbling contest; he starred on the junior high school basketball squad; and he quarterbacked the Champaign High School football team. But after he won a junior high school pole-vaulting contest (at six feet, nine inches), Richards became hooked on the event and practiced relentlessly in his back yard with a makeshift pit and crossbar perched between a telephone pole and a tree limb.

Apart from athletics, Richards had a difficult adolescence. At age fifteen he fell in with a gang of hooligans engaged in petty robbery, a number of whom eventually spent time in correctional facilities. When Richards was seventeen, his parents divorced. Fortunately, he came under the influence of the Reverend Merlin E. Garber, who both made his home available and steered the youngster toward religion and academics. Garber was a minister of the Church of the Brethren, a group originally nicknamed the "Dunkers" because of their rite of baptismal soaking. Richards graduated from high school in spring 1943, and in February 1944 Garber helped him enroll at Brethren-affiliated Bridgewater College in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley. At Bridgewater, where his track coach was a young biology instructor named Harry ("Doc") Jopson, Richards tore the Mason-Dixon Conference apart, winning six individual events, including the pole vault, at the 1945 league meet alone.

At age twenty, Richards became an ordained minister in the Church of the Brethren, and he received a scholarship enabling him to transfer to the main campus of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. At Illinois, where his track coach was Leo Johnson, Richards focused on the pole vault, reaching a best of 14 feet, 3.25 inches. In 1947 he finished in a seven-way tie for first at the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Championships. A B.A. from Illinois followed in 1947, and with the help of a teaching fellowship, Richards also earned an M.A. in philosophy from Illinois in 1948. Richards studied for one year at Chicago's Bethany Biblical Seminary, then returned to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1949 to teach in the department of sociology.

Richards made the U.S. Olympic team that competed in London in 1948, winning the bronze medal. The pole vault had been dominated by Cornelius ("Dutch") Warmerdam, the first man to vault over 15 feet (in 1940). In 1950 Richards reached 14 feet, 11 inches, and a year later at the Millrose Games at Madison Square Garden in New York City, he became history's second 15-footer.

In 1951 Richards joined the faculty at Brethren-affiliated LaVerne College in Southern California as an associate professor of philosophy. He won both Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) indoor and outdoor vault titles, then turned his versatile talents to the decathlon. He followed a pair of early season wins with the national AAU decathlon championship, scoring 7,834 points (1950 tables). It was history's third highest total. For his efforts Richards was named the "outstanding athlete in North America" by the Helms Foundation and won the 1951 James E. Sullivan Memorial Award, emblematic of the nation's top amateur athlete.

At the 1952 Olympic Games in Helsinki, Finland, Richards set a new meet record of 14 feet, 11 inches, to win the gold medal. He repeated his Olympic triumph four years later in Melbourne, Australia, with 14 feet, 11.25 inches. Tied for first, he watched USA teammate Robert Gutkowski fail at the next height. On his own final attempt, Richards hit the crossbar on the way down, then lay in the sawdust pit for over thirty seconds as the crossbar wobbled, hanging on the edge of the standards. Olympic myth has it that the "Vaulting Vicar" lifted his hands in prayer, willing the bar to stay put. It did. Yet it was not quite that dramatic. "I did look up and point at the bar, but it wasn't a prayer," Richards said. "It was like, 'Oh Lordy, is that thing going to fall off?'" Richards said later, "I can see how people thought it was a prayer, but it wasn't." Thus Richards became the first (and remains the only) athlete to win two Olympic pole vault gold medals.

Few athletes ever dominated their sport the way Richards dominated his. He was world ranked in the pole vault for eleven consecutive seasons (1947–1957) and world ranked number one in eight. He claimed seventeen national pole vault championships (nine outdoor, eight indoor). By 1957, when few athletes could reach fifteen feet on bamboo, steel, or aluminum vaulting poles, Richards vaulted fifteen feet or better on more than 130 occasions, more times than all other worldwide athletes combined. As well as his three Olympic medals, Richards won a pair of gold medals at Pan American Games (1951 and 1955) and was victorious at the Millrose Games eleven times.

Less well known is Richards's record as a multievent athlete. As a decathlete he won twelve of twenty career meets, captured three AAU titles (1951, 1954, and 1955), and made the 1956 Olympic team (placed thirteenth in Melbourne). Richards also took on the all-around, a decathlonlike contest, setting a U.S. record in 1951 and winning the AAU title in 1953. Twice (1951 and 1954) Richards was the world's top-ranked decathlete.

In January 1957 the DuPont Theatre presented "Leap to Heaven," a half-hour dramatization of Richards's life, with Richards playing himself. Beginning in 1958 Richards became a spokesperson for Wheaties, appearing on their cereal box for a record thirteen years (1958–1970). His autobiography, Heart of a Champion, was released in 1959. Millions became familiar with his motivational speeches and inspiring sermons. When veterans' track and field became popular in the 1970s, Richards returned to the athletic arena competing in masters' events into the 1990s.

Married to Mary Leah Cline on 17 February 1946, Richards had five children, three of whom became prominent athletes. Richards lost his family vault record to son Bob, Jr., who went on to clear 17 feet, 6 inches. In 1990 another son, Brandon, went even higher (18 feet, 4.5 inches), and a third son, Tommy, was an outstanding collegiate decathlete. Richards was elected to the National Track and Field Hall of Fame in 1975 and to the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame in 1983.

Richards was a shining example of the competitive and sportsmanlike person about whom he spent a lifetime preaching. An Olympian who neglected neither his mind nor his soul, Richards used his athletic status and the pulpit to challenge countless Americans to live like champions.

Richards's autobiography is Heart of a Champion (1959). His decathlon career is chronicled in Frank Zarnowski, American Decathletes: A 20th Century Who ' s Who (2001).

Frank Zarnowski

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