The Vaulter of Champions
May 15, 2008
In 1947, Illinois' Bob Richards shared the Big Ten pole vault championship with two other participants after clearing a height of 13'08.00". The following year he earned the bronze medal at the 1948 Olympic Games in London, only to answer with gold medals in the next two Olympics at Helsinki in 1952 and Melbourne in 1956. But what is perhaps most remarkable about Richards is the fact that he was able to do something that no other athlete in any sport can stake claim to. In 1958, he became the first athlete to appear on a box of Wheaties.
In fact not only was Richards the first athlete featured on "The Breakfast of Champions," he was also the cereal's first of seven celebrity spokespersons. The six athletes who followed Richards as spokespersons were equally impressive. Olympian Bruce Jenner took over in 1977, until Mary Lou Retton touted Wheaties in 1984. She was replaced by Walter Payton in 1986, while Chris Evert (1987), Michael Jordan (1988), and Tiger Woods (1998) have since served as the cereal's voice.
It's interesting that of the seven spokespersons, three have distinct ties to the state of Illinois, and it all began with Richards.
Born Feb. 20, 1926, in Champaign, Ill., Richards opted to stay close to home for college and became a standout for the Fighting Illini track team. During his time on campus, Richards recorded a national collegiate pole vault title as well 20 national AAU titles, including 17 in his top event.
Known as the "Vaulting Vicar" in his competitive days, Richards competed in three Olympics in two events. He participated in the 1948, 1952, and 1956 Summer Olympics as a pole vaulter and was a decathlete in 1956. After he became just the second man at the time to clear 15 feet (15'04.75"), Richards claimed his two victories at the Olympics and is still the only two-time Olympic gold medal winner in the event.
Richards was also well known for his activities off the track as well. As a young adolescent he was often seen with troublemakers around the Champaign area. At the age of 16, after seeing five of his friends sent off to jail, Richards turned to the church and put all of his efforts into his faith and pole vaulting. One year prior to winning the conference title in the pole vault, Richards was ordained as a minister in the Church of the Brethren in 1946. He remains the church's most famous minister.
Faith often helped Richards when competing. Several college coaches believed his 5-foot-11 and 180-pound frame was too small for a pole vaulter. Yet Richards would persevere and soon his new outlook on life began to pay dividends. In 1951, he was honored with James E. Sullivan Memorial Award, given annually by the Amateur Athletic Union of the United States (AAU) to the outstanding amateur athlete in the country.
A year later at the 1952 Olympic Games, Richards, who had then become a theology professor at La Verne College in California, proved he was a fitting honoree for the Sullivan sportsmanship award as he used his faith to help bring together athletes from the U.S. and U.S.S.R. The Helsinki Games marked the first time the latter country competed, so Richards made sure to cool any Cold War tensions by leading a delegation of U.S. athletes to visit their peers from the Soviet Union.
Throughout his career, Richards captured the U.S. national pole vault title nine times in outdoor competition (1948-52, 1954-57) and eight times during the indoor season (1948, 1950-53, 1955-57). In the decathlon, Richards claimed the championship in 1951, 1954 and 1955.
Later on in his life, he was tabbed with several Hall of Fame accolades. He was inducted into the National Track & Field Hall of Fame in 1975 and into the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame in 1983. He was honored several times for his contributions to physical fitness, for example, in an effort to stimulate national interest in physical fitness, Edwards bicycled over 3,000 miles from Los Angeles to New York in 1970. That same year he was named as a United States Track & Field Hall of Fame inductee.
Politics also played a central role in Richards' life. In the height of his Olympic success, Edwards was named by the U.S. State Department as Goodwill Ambassador to Asia in 1954. He delivered speeches on sports and patriotism while touring India, Burma, Thailand, Hong Kong and Korea.
In 1972 he was a Presidential Representative to President Nixon at the Olympic Games in Munich and 12 years later, Richards stunned many in the track and field community by launching a campaign of his own for the presidency of the United States. The reverend ran as an ultra right-wing candidate for the U.S. Populist Party. He and running mate Maureen Salaman earned 66,324 votes during his short campaign.
Today the 82-year-old spends his time with his wife Joan at their Olympia Ranch in Gordon, Texas, where they breed and train world-class miniature horses.
Richards will long be remembered for his success at Illinois and the impressive milestones that followed. The only two-time Olympic gold-medal-winning pole vaulter and Wheaties first spokesperson also made waves as a minister, an avid cyclist, a U.S. ambassador and a presidential candidate.
That is a full life lived.
He must have eaten his Wheaties.
Adapted from information from The Big Ten by Kenneth L. (Tug) Wilson and Jerry Brondfield, USA Track & Field, and Olympian Ranch Miniatures.