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High School Olympians--Could there be one on your track team?
By Mark Winitz and James Dunaway
Summer 2004
American Track & Field

A Note of Appreciation. Our thanks to the coaches and athletes mentioned in this story, and to Hal Bateman; Annette Bender; Mike Dickson; Marcus Donner; Cristina Gonzales; Ellen Gorelick; Duane Hamamura; Jean Parietti; Dan Pelle; Dale Phelps; Bart Rayniak; Larry Reisnouer; Bruce Ross; Cindy Slater; and Alyson Star, all of whom helped make it possible.

You may be surprised to learn that some 66 high school athletes from 24 different states have earned places on U.S. Olympic teams in the past. They didn't just make the Olympic team, either - they brought back a total of 16 medals, 9 of them gold - and more than half of them made the Olympic finals in their events. In later years, this amazing group went on to win many more medals in subsequent Olympics.

We managed to get in touch with a dozen of these prep Olympians. We talked to them, and where possible their coaches, and listened as they recalled their stories. Outside of their athletic talents, they were everyday high school kids - and like most high school athletes, sports kept them too busy to get into much trouble.

In addition to their inborn athletic ability, all but one gave major credit to one or more dedicated coaches, who recognized their talents and worked with them for long hours to perfect the skills than made them champions.

It's too late to do much about coaching one of your current athletes to an Olympic berth in 2004, but reading these stories of past high school Olympians might make you want to keep your eyes peeled for possible Olympic candidates in 2008. Right now they're in junior high, but there's a chance that one or more of today's 8th graders could make the U.S. team for Beijing. Wouldn't it be something if one of them was one of yours!

Casey Carrigan (1968, pole vault), Orting (WA) H.S.

In Orting (pop. 1,200) Casey Carrigan started pole vaulting at an age when most boys are still in Little League. He and his two older brothers lived on 40 acres near Mt. Rainier, and the boys made rope swings (think Tarzan) as well as high jump and pole vault pits in their "back yard."

With plenty of wood available, they built their own jumping standards. At first, they even used willow trunks for vaulting poles. Mom and Dad drove the boys to competitions all over the state, bought Casey his first fiberglass pole in 8th grade. Never formally coached, Casey learned technique watching top vaulters in person and on TV, and his older brother Andy helped him iron out the kinks. Casey jumped 14-6 as a high school freshman in 1966, 15-8 as a soph (won State both years), and began to think "I might have a shot at the Olympic Trials."

Next year, barely 17, he took third in the AAU (now USATF), setting a high school record at 16-8. He then went on to take third in the Trials with another high school record, 17- 0, vaulting his age and beating, among others, the NCAA outdoor champion, Jon Vaughn; the AAU indoor champion, Dennis Phillips; and the AAU outdoor champion, Dick Railsback.

In Mexico City. Casey jumped high enough (16-1) to qualify for the final, but an official's questionable decision turned it into a miss. The Olympics caused Casey, an all-state football halfback as a junior, to miss all but two games of his senior football season. "Football was my favorite sport," he recalls, "but going to the Olympics was worth it. It was a great experience." Today, Casey Carrigan is a fire captain in Long Beach, California. "It's a great job for a former athlete," he says.

Chandra Cheeseborough (1976, 100m and 200m), Ribault H.S., Jacksonville, FL

"Cheese" was a born athlete. Her father was a baseball player and track runner; her sister held the Florida state high jump record. Chandra herself was a basketball star at Jacksonville's Ribault High School, but she chose her second love--track. "I felt my running could eventually carry me all over the world," she said, and it certainly did.

Cheeseborough gives credit for her early success to Ribault's track coach Gwen Maxwell and to famed Tennessee State University coach Ed Temple. During her prep junior and senior years, Cheeseborough spent summers training with Temple's TSU Track Club in Nashville, where triple Olympic gold medalist Wilma Rudolph was a "big sister" to the young athlete.

"I spent a lot of time on basic fundamentals with Chandra and all the high school athletes," said Temple. "She worked at it. She didn't jump up overnight. She was good at some meets, not so good in others. But as she got older and stronger, and the more she worked with the college girls, it helped her right along."

Cheeseborough emerged as a star at age 16, winning the 200 meters at the 1975 Pan American Games. At the '76 U.S. Trials in Eugene, she took second in the 100 meters with a high school national record of 11.13, and second in the 200. She ran both at the Montreal Olympics, where she was 6th in the 100m finals and made the 200m semis. She also made the '80 and '84 Olympic teams, and in '84 at the Los Angeles Games, she won gold in the 4x100 and 4x400 relays, and silver at 400 meters.

What propelled her early success?

"My burning desire to win every time I stepped on the track," said Cheeseborough, who now coaches the women's team at her alma mater, Tennessee State.

Pat Daniels (Connolly) (1960, 800m, Capuchino H.S. Millbrae, CA

A year after 15-year-old Pat Daniels ran in her first track meet, she found herself running for a place on the U.S. Olympic team. She qualified for the 1960 Olympic Trials by winning the AAU 800 meters in a national record 2:17.5. In the Trials a week later, she lowered the record to 2:16.6 winning her heat, and then won the final with an even better 2:15.6.

Daniels was "discovered" as a possible athlete by a shrewd driver's education teacher at Capuchino High. The teacher noticed Daniels' long legs crammed under the steering wheel and suggested that she watch a local open meet at nearby San Mateo High School. Invited by the meet's officials to compete, in her first-ever competition she set a Pacific AAU long jump record, and began thinking about the Rome Olympics. Like almost every high school in those days, Capuchino had no girls' track team, so Daniels joined a local track club, the San Mateo Elks.

Elks' coach Ed Parker figured Daniels' best chance to make the '60 team was at 800 meters, and soon had his athlete doing double daily workouts, almost unheard-of for women in those days. "It wasn't pretty hard; it was very hard," recalls Daniels about her 5 a.m. runs around the Capuchino campus, followed by seminary attendance, regular classes, band practice, and, finally, evening track practice after the boys' practice was finished. No matter that the track was locked; the girls climbed the fence.

Daniels competed in the women's 800m prelims in Rome on the same day her senior school year classes started back home. She was knocked down onto the infield in the last 200 meters and did not progress. Daniels went on to make the U.S. '64 and '68 Olympic teams in the pentathlon, finishing 7th in Tokyo and 6th in Mexico City.

Dwayne Evans (1976, 200m) South Mountain H.S., Phoenix, AZ

After 16-year-old Dwayne Evans won the 200 meters at the 1975 U.S. Junior Championships running for the South Phoenix Speed Merchants, the club's coach, Richard Thompson, told Dwayne he could make the Olympic team and started preparing him for the '76 trials. He put Evans--who didn't compete in other sports-- into a pre-season conditioning program in November of his senior year, and entered him in New York's Millrose Games to get experience with world class competition.

Evans ran a series of fast 200s in the spring of 1976, culminating with a stunning second place in the Olympic Trials in 20.22, which not only earned him a high school record, but also made him the ninth fastest performer on the world all-time list. In Montreal, two months after his graduation from South Mountain, Evans won the bronze medal in the 200, becoming the youngest Olympic track and field medal winner since 1952.

Although Evans was the NCAA 200-meter champion for ASU in '81, his athletic peak came early. For several years after the Games, a series of injuries prevented him from surpassing his prep performances, but that Olympic Trials 20.22 still ranks number two on the U.S. boys' high school list.

"My focus and my desire to be great at something were my strengths, and track came easy," said Evans, who decided he wanted to be an Olympian at 13 while watching the '72 Munich Games. His father, Delbert Hodge, was an outstanding high school sprinter and hurdler, and (like father, like son) young Dwayne began setting multiple age-group track records as early as 11 years old.

"I always had a feeling about Dwayne," coach Thompson recalls. "He was so much different from everybody else because he really listened to me and believed in what I told him." Johnny "Lam" Jones (1976, 100, 4X100), Lampasas, TX

Johnny usually ran the 220 and 440 at Lampasas High, but, he recalls, "I kept pestering my coach (Scott Boyd) to let me run the 100." After a couple of 100s in track practice ("He wouldn't show me his stop watch"), Johnny got to run his first official 100-yard-dash at the Bluebonnet Relays in Brownwood, Texas. He promptly ran 9.2 in the prelims, and then won the final with another 9.2. Coach Boyd told the school board and the Booster Club, "I think this kid has a chance to make the Olympic Trials."

The whole town pitched in to raise money to send him to meets in Atlanta, Knoxville and Eugene - he'd hardly ever traveled outside of Texas before -- and Jones ended up qualifying for the Trials in all three sprints (10.1, 20.7, 46.14). But Coach Boyd figured the rounds of the 200 and 400 would be too much for an 18-year-old, and Johnny ran only the 100.

He finished fourth in the Trials 100 meters, which gave him a chance to win a spot on the U.S. 4x100 relay team. He won it. Then, when another high schooler, Houston McTear, pulled a hamstring, Johnny got to run in the individual 100 in Montreal. He made the final and finished sixth, then came back to win a gold medal running the second leg of the relay.

After the Games, "Lam" Jones (for Lampasas), played football, his scholarship sport, and starred for three years as a wide receiver for the University of Texas He was the No.2 overall pick in the 1980 NFL draft and played 7 years for the New York Jets. These days, Lam is back on the track scene: he's a track and field consultant for TrackMasters, a Texas company which constructs running tracks and football fields.

Gerry Lindgren (1964, 10,000m) Rodgers H. S., Spokane, WA

Although Olympic glory passed him by, Gerry Lindgren is still remembered as one of the greatest-ever U.S. distance runners. Even before he turned 18 on March 9, 1964, Lindgren had knocked an astounding 46 seconds off the high school 2-mile record (to 8:40.0). Later that spring he set a prep record (13:44.0) for 5,000 meters that still stands today, and stunned the track world with an inspiring 10,000m victory in the '64 USA-USSR meet in Los Angeles. He came into the Tokyo Olympics as one of the favorites for the 10,000 meters.

The skinny (5-6, 118) kid with the squeaky voice simply loved to run for the sake of running. According to Tracy Walters, his coach at Rodgers High, Lindgren ran everywhere around town on top of Walters' mileage. "I didn't see anything wrong with him running 110 or 120 miles on soft surfaces and two daily workouts."

Walters, a former miler, used an eclectic approach with his young runners, applying what he'd learned from the training methods of Zatopek, Cerutty, and other legends. Over-distance training and tempo running were key elements. Double workouts on a daily basis were common. In the summertime, he had Lindgren and his teammates running voluminous "fun" miles as a group, on grass, trails, beaches, and other soft surfaces.

"It was a coaching relationship, but it was also kind of a partnership," Walters recalled about Lindgren. "I loved to see kids be creative about their running, and have a good time doing it."

At the '64 Olympic Trials, Lindgren won the 10,000 easily, beating Billy Mills by 40 yards. Shortly before the Olympic 10,000, though, Lindgren sprained an ankle. He valiantly led the 10,000 at 4K, but the ankle didn't hold and he finished 9th, nearly a minute behind gold medalist Mills.

Bob Mathias (1948, Decathlon) Tulare, CA

17-year-old Bob Mathias competed in his first decathlon one week after his high school graduation in 1948. Seven weeks later in London, against older and much more experienced opponents, Mathias won the third decathlon of his life, and became the youngest man ever to win an Olympic track and field event.

At the end of Mathias' senior year, Tulare High Coach Virgil Jackson told his star athlete about a "funny" event he thought he should try. The Southern Pacific AAU meet was three weeks away and a decathlon was on the event schedule.

"I thought it would be fun, a one-shot deal," Mathias recalls.

The 6-2, 190-pounder was already a versatile handyman on the track team, a winner in the shot put, discus, high and low hurdles, long jump, high jump, and sprint relays. But for the decathlon, Jackson needed to get his pupil ready in several new events (pole vault, javelin, 400 and 1500 meters) and adapt him to the higher 42-inch hurdles and the heavier shot and discus used in post-scholastic competition.

"Coach probably taught me out of a manual," Mathias speculates about the javelin. "But, he was a guy who could analyze your actions, identify your faults, and tell you how to improve. He was smart and sharp enough to see your style. What he told me to do worked."

When Mathias won the decathlon at Southern Pacific AAUs, that prompted Jackson to raise funds from the Tulare Elks Association for a trip to the Olympic Trials in Bloomfield, NJ. There, Mathias was a surprise winner, defeating three-time national champion Irving Mondschein. He proceeded to win gold in London--only his third decathlon, remember--and won it again four years later.

Says Mathias: "Coach Jackson saw that potential in me. Otherwise, I never would have thought about being in the decathlon."

Kathy McMillan (1976, long jump), Hoke County H.S., Raeford, N.C.

Kathy McMillan says she was "just a farm girl, a country girl" when she started long jumping in 9th grade. "Our coach (William Colston) let us choose what event we wanted to do," she recalls. "I used to like to jump over a little brook in the woods, and I was the only one who could get across. I guess I was a tomboy." When coach Colston saw her improve by two feet between 9th and 10th grade, she says, "He told me if I keep jumping well, I could make the Olympic team. I didn't know what that was, but I believed him." She adds, with a chuckle, "I guess he knew talent."

Churches, civic organizations like the Jaycees and Lions, and the Hoke County Recreation Association raised more than $1,000 to send McMillan (along with coach Colston and a chaperone) to meets like the 1975 AAU Nationals, where she finished second and won a place on the U..S national team. In the spring of her senior year, McMillan, now all of 17, improved the American record four times, the last time when she won the National AAU long jump with 22 feet 3 inches.

At the Olympic Trials, she had hamstring problems, but all four of her measured jumps were better than anyone else's, and she won the Trials with a wind-aided 22-3.

In Montreal at the Olympics, it was rainy, and she had trouble with the run-up Gradually, jump by jump, she got better, moving into second place with a jump of 21-10 1/4, just 2 1/2 inches behind East Germany's Angela Voigt. McMillan's last jump was long enough to win the gold medal, but she fouled by an inch. Today, she lives in Los Angeles, and she still holds the high school long jump record at 22-3.

Jim Ryun (1964, 1500m) East High, Wichita, KS

Jim Ryun was a skinny 15-year-old high school sophomore when he won the fourth mile race of his life, running 4:21.3 in the 1963 Kansas Relays high school mile. 17 months later he charged up from sixth place to edge out veteran Jim Grelle at the '64 Olympic Trials for the third berth on the U.S. 1,500-meter squad that went to the Tokyo Games.

According to Bob Timmons, Ryun's coach at East High and later at the University of Kansas, Ryun's superior ability to sprint on the last lap when he was tired was the physical asset that made him a young Olympian. Timmons built that asset into a youngster who could barely run a 5:38 mile when he entered 10th grade. He accomplished it by prescribing intense and tiring intervals such as 20 x 400 Zatopek-style sessions; off the track Ryun lifted home-made weights and kicked laps in the pool.

"All the guys during that time were sprint oriented," said Timmons. "At the '64 Trials in Los Angeles, coming off of the last turn, Jim was able to kick into third and do all of the things that we worked really hard to overcome."

Ryun, who in 1964 had also become the first high schooler to run a sub-four-minute mile (3:59.0), returned to East High after the Olympics and as a senior set a high school mile record of 3:55.3 which lasted until 2001. "Almost from the beginning, from his second or third track meet as a sophomore, we talked about a sub-four mile," Timmons recalls.

Ryun went on to star at Kansas, and in the next few years set world records for the half-mile (1:44.9), mile (3:51.1) and 1,500 meters (3:33.1). And today, proving that there is life after track and field, Jim Ryun is a U.S. Congressman from Kansas.

Janell Smith (Carson) (1964, 400m) Fredonia, KS

In the pre-Title IX early 1960s, Janell Smith's high school in Fredonia, Kansas didn't have a girls' track team. But her small town (about 3,000 residents today) was confident in her talent. So was her father, Meade Smith, an outstanding former sprinter who was invited to the 1936 Olympic Trials but didn't have the money to get there. But Fredonia made sure Janell would get to her Olympic Trials. Their support propelled the younger Smith to an American record 54.5 for 400 meters, which came in a semi-final of the '64 Olympic Games when she was a high school senior.

"My father was my coach, so I think I fulfilled his own athletic dreams," said Smith, who started winning U.S. Junior Olympic championships when she was 11. In 1961, as a frosh, she ranked second in the nation to Wilma Rudolph in the 100-yard dash.

Soon, Fredonia and the local Chamber of Commerce started sponsoring Smith, allowing her, accompanied by her father, to travel to big meets on the east and west coasts. As a prep, Smith made several U.S. national teams, competing in the 100, 200, and hurdles (not even the USA-Soviet Union dual meet had a women's 400 meters) while getting valuable international competitive experience.

"The whole thing about my athletic career was that it was before organized women's sports," said Smith. "So it was all about my dad, my family, and my town. But I would have loved to have had a local team to run on."

In 1965, Janell lowered her national record to 53.7 in a dual meet against Poland in Warsaw. Fredonia's population and Smith's track exploits put her on the May 10, 1965 cover of Sports Illustrated, and she still occasionally receives the old magazine issue in the mail, accompanied by requests for her autograph.

Willye B. White (1956, long jump), Greenwood, MS

Growing up in rural Mississippi, Willye Whyte never heard of the Olympic Trials - although starting at 12 she won state championships in the long jump, the hurdles and dashes. She spent much of her summer 'vacations' working in the cotton fields. It wasn't so much for the money, she says, "but because my family wanted me to learn how to work hard." At 16, her grandfather told her she could either go to school and get an education and get out of Mississippi, or get pregnant and pick cotton the rest of her life.

That spring of 1964, a local coach told Tennessee State women's track coach, Ed Temple, about Willye (in those days, T.S.U. was one of only two colleges which had a women's track program), and Temple invited her to a Tennessee State track camp in Nashville. Willye left Greenwood on May 28 and never looked back. "I found there were these Olympic Games," she recalls. "They were in November, so if I made the Olympic team I wouldn't have to go back to the cotton fields. That was very motivating."

At the track camp, she recalls, "You tried everything. If you ran faster than the other person, you were a sprinter. If you jumped farther, you were a long jumper."

Three months later, at the Olympic Trials, she finished second in the long jump. That November in Melbourne, still 16, she won an Olympic silver medal and set a new American record of 19-11 3/4. "I was nervous," she recalls, "so I read the New Testament. I read the verse about have no fear, and I relaxed. Then I jumped farther than I ever jumped before in my life." She went on to make four more U.S. Olympic teams, and won another silver medal in the 4x100 relay in 1964.

Patty Van Wolvelaere (1968, 80-meter hurdles) Renton, WA

Patty Van Wolvelaere, an early favorite to make the 1968 U.S. Olympic team, turned out to need some luck to get to Mexico City.

Like most schools in the 1960s, Renton High didn't have sports teams for girls. "We had intramurals," says Patty Van Wolvelaere. So Patty, who'd started running in junior high, joined a local track club as a 9th grader in 1965. "My P.E. teacher saw something about the Angels Track Club. He knew I could run fast, and so I went there and I liked it right away." A few months later, coach Ron Sorkness took the Angels to the Junior Nationals in Oregon, and Patty finished third in the 440- yard dash.

"Next year," says Patty, "Coach started me on the hurdles." It quickly became evident that she had found her event: at 16, she won the 200-meter low hurdles in the Senior Nationals. It didn't do much for her social life, though. "The boys were pretty much in awe of me," she says. "I didn't have many dates."

By her senior year, she was one of the favorites for the Olympic team. But that spring, she suffered a fatigue fracture of her right fibula. And though she had to spend three weeks in a cast, she worked hard at the weights to keep in shape.

Time was on her side. With the Olympics in mid-October and the Trials in late August ("I got lucky it was so late in the year"), she was able to finish second in the Trials. She went on to take fourth in the 80-meter hurdles at Mexico City, tying the national record of 10.5 seconds. She continued to compete when her event was raised to 100 meters and the hurdles from 30 inches to 33, and held that national record from 1972 through 1978.

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