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Bob Richards — August, 2012
Bob Richards won three Olympic Medals in the pole vault: Bronze in 1948 in London, Gold in 1952 in Helsinki and Gold in 1956 in Melbourne. He is the only man to win two Gold Medals and three total medals in the pole vault. Bob’s pole vault championships include 17 AAU National titles, the 1951 and 1955 Pan American Games Gold Medals and 11 consecutive Millrose Games victories. He also competed in the 1956 Olympic Decathlon, finishing 12th and won three national decathlon titles. Bob was the second man to pole vault 15 feet which he achieved 126 times in his career. He was the 1947 Big Ten Conference and NCAA Champion in the pole vault. Bob was named the 1951 Sullivan Award winner as the nation’s top amateur athlete. He was the first athlete to appear on the front of Wheaties cereal boxes and was the first Wheaties spokesman. Bob is an ordained minister and motivational speaker who has given over 3,000 speeches. He has been inducted into seven athletic and three speakers Halls of Fame including the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame in 1983 and the United States National Track and Field Hall of Fame in 1975. His life was depicted in a made-for-television movie titled ‘Leap of Faith,’ broadcast on Jan. 15, 1957. The 86 year old resides in Sanco, Texas. He has four sons, who were all excellent athletes and pole vaulters, two grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.
GCR:You are the only man in over 100 years of Olympic competition to win Gold medals twice in the pole vault. What does this say about your place in history and, a half century later, are you surprised no one has duplicated your feat?
WKAll of sports have gone the way of technological advances so it’s hard to make comparisons as there are fast tracks, fiberglass poles, different styles in the high jump, better basketballs and baseballs that fly farther. It is really amazing when you start looking as it is so hard to evaluate past performances in the modern age. But medals and championships do stand the test of time so I guess I’m up there somewhere in history.
GCR:Consistency over many years and domination of an event are hallmarks of a great champion. Reflect on your 17 AAU National titles and 126 vaults of over 15 feet at a time when that was the height very few had achieved.
WKIt’s the funniest thing because for 13 years I dominated the sport and loved it. I was one of the first to train all year around. It’s amazing what relevance I had at that time because most athletes didn’t train year around and didn’t lift weights – I was the first one to lift weights. I took upon pole vaulting as a vocation.
GCR:How different was it competing as an amateur athlete in the 1940s and 1950s compared to the present day?
WKThe big difference is that we didn’t get money. I remember one time when AAU officials came out to my house and said, ‘Bob, you were a dime over on your expense account.’ We were all amateurs back then. It’s hard to compare when athletes today have many coaches and they start training when they are only two years old in some sports. What I’m trying to say is that it is so different now. But I wouldn’t trade my experience for anything. We went all over the world, we had friends and it wasn’t a ‘do or die,’ ‘win at any cost’ or ‘hate the other guy’ experience. We had pretty good fellowship, congratulated each other and it was a unique thing. For example I went to India and was teaching kids how to vault and they loved me there. When I went to Germany after World War II the German people loved me – they even wanted me to come back as a guest for the 1972 Munich Olympics. I also went to Scandinavia for nine straight years and they really love amateur sports there. But the sad side of it is that all of the amateur meets are gone – they don’t exist anymore. We are dealing with a cultural phenomenon that is so different today.
GCR:During the amateur era where athletes usually competed for a limited time, you were a top performer for many years. What were the main factors which contributed to your dominance?
WKIt’s kind of strange. When I hit the top it was right after World War II and so many young men were in the service. Also, something like 15 million Germans died and 20 million Russians died. They were all killing each other rather than training. I was in the ministry and I was training so I had a real advantage over everybody else. For 13 years I held that dominance and then coaching and professionalism came along and everything changed. It really went wild – look at how track and field is today.
GCR:Technology in pole vaulting was changing when you were competing. What type of pole did you use?
WKI used aluminum poles. Dutch Warmerdam, who held the World Record, told me I was making a mistake staying with aluminum as bamboo had a kick to it and I could possibly hold higher. I jumped as high as 15-6 on an aluminum pole. It’s funny as some time later some of us went around the country and we said we’d give anyone $10,000 who could jump 10-6 with our poles and we had no takers.
GCR:The Millrose Games was a competition where you also achieved great success winning the pole vault an amazing 11 consecutive years. How important was this meet on your annual calendar, were the crowds very supportive and did you like indoor competition more than outdoors?
WKOh I loved The Millrose Games. I’ll tell you a fascinating thing about that. I was sitting one day in my living room and I received a phone call from New York. The fellow on the other end said, ‘Bob, we’re happy to tell you that you just made the New York Hall of Fame.’ I said, ‘What?’ I didn’t know what on earth I did to deserve that as in my childhood I looked up to Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe Louis and Eddie Arcaro. When I was a kid we had some concrete steps and I’d throw a tennis ball and a fly ball or grounder would come back for me to field. We had a parking lot about 5 feet across and 50 feet long and I would imagine myself playing in stadiums, never dreaming that it would come to pass. They said that since I had won the Millrose Games pole vault 11 straight times that put me in the New York Hall of Fame. I couldn’t imagine making the New York Hall of Fame. When I was a little kid I couldn’t have imagined that I would be sitting next to Frank Gifford as the drum roll was sounding. It was dramatic. I said to Frank, ‘This is a long way for me – I don’t belong here!’ And he said, ‘It’s a long way from Bakersfield for me too!’ It’s wonderful for me that I was fortunate to be inducted into so many halls of fame.
GCR:You first represented the United States at the 1948 Olympics in London. What do you remember most from that competition?
WKI was favored to win at the 1948 Games. I had the highest average of top vaults coming in and of course Boo Moorcom and Guinn Smith were there as my teammates. But we jumped outdoors and it rained for nine straight hours. Have you ever tried to pole vault in the rain? Let me tell you – it is virtually impossible. I also think the Olympics should be held indoors - you can’t have a fair competition in the rain – as Dwight Stones said when it was raining during the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, ‘I’m a high jumper, not a swimmer.’ The current U.S. Olympic representatives called me recently as they are celebrating the 1948 games at the current Olympics. Since Guinn Smith won the pole vault I was bragging about what it took for him to jump 14 feet in that sloppy mess. It was really something else.
GCR:At that 1948 Olympic competition your teammate, Guinn Smith, Finland’s Errki Kataja and you were in a three-way battle for the medals with each of you having a chance to win Gold. Before Guinn Smith cleared the final height on his third attempt, did you have any near misses and were you pleased to earn the Bronze Medal?
WKI had made 13’9 on my third attempt and Guinn had on his second attempt, but we were just slipping on the pole vault runway – it was unbelievable. Llater I competed against Kataja in Finland and we became close friends. That is one thing the Olympics does that people don’t realize – you make friends. That first medal was dear to me.
GCR:There was a spirited competition just to make the U.S. team at the Olympic Trials with Boo Moorcom and Guinn Smith clearing 14’ 8 1/8, you at 14’ 6 1/8 and John Montgomery(USC) narrowly behind at 14’ 4 1/8. How tough was it to make the team and how exciting was it for you to realize you were an Olympian?
WKYou want to know how tough it was to make that team? Most of us were using bamboo poles then and seven bamboo poles were broken at the qualifying height. They were pulling so hard that they were breaking the poles – that’s how stiff the competition was!
GCR:Did anything else stand out from your first Olympic Trials either in the competition or other related happenings?
WKThere was a real treat - guess who the speaker was for that occasion – Jesse Owens. Also competing in the pole vault was Earl Meadows who won the Olympic Gold Medal in 1936 – isn’t that a great story. He didn’t make the team, but he was close. That was quite an occasion. It was something how Harrison Dillard hit the fifth hurdle and didn’t make it in the hurdles, but of course he went on to win the 100 meters.
GCR:Four years later at the 1952 Olympic Trials you won at 14’ 8 ¾ by three inches over Don Laz and George Mattos. How strong were these two as competitors, especially Don Laz who had tied with you for first place at the AAU Championships a week earlier?
WKIt was a really tough competition. We both had cleared the same height and then Don missed three times at 14’ 8 ¾ and I made it on my third vault.
GCR:The 1952 Olympic competition had to be one for the ages as you and Don Laz made your first five heights on your first attempt and the next height on your second attempt before you made your winning vault on your final attempt. Did the head-to-head duel make winning the Gold medal even more satisfying than winning easily without tight competition?
WKOh, yes it did. It was tough. That’s what made it so great as everything was very close.
GCR:What do you remember of the 1952 Olympic pole vault competition and of that Gold Medal vault?
WKIt’s funny because I had prayed before my winning vault, ‘Oh God, help me to do my best.’ The answer came in the strangest way as everything inside me said; ‘pull,’ and then when I started up everything said, ‘push,’ and I must have gone over that crossbar by a foot. When I won one of the Russians ran out and embraced me and hugged me and all of the Russians were there. It was wonderful. The greatest thing in my life was when the Russians and Americans met in 1952 and I was encouraging the Russians during the pole vault. When they would jump I would say, ‘Hortisho, hortisho, hortisho,’ which means ‘good’ in Russian. They would watch me jump and say, ‘Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful.’ One newspaper noted that I should have won the Nobel Peace Prize because that stopped the Cold War.
GCR:What were you feeling right afterward as you knew you had earned the Gold Medal?
WKIf you put it in this frame of reference it makes it easier to understand. I figured that I had worked 10,000 hours to get to that point. Years later I used to make a joke with audiences, ‘You work 10,000 hours and eat a bowl of Wheaties every day and you’ll be surprised what that will do for you.’ It was the culmination of what I had done starting when I was 13 years old. I pole vaulted every day. I didn’t ever dream of winning the Olympics, but I fell in love with pole vaulting. So figure it out – from 7th grade to 8th grade, all the way through 12th grade, then four years of college and three or four years afterward I had vaulted every day. It’s a little like four-time Olympic Gold medalist in the discus, Al Oerter, told me once, ‘I’ve thrown the discus about 100,000 times.’ Well, that’s the way it was for me with the pole vault.
GCR:How special of a moment was it to stand on the podium, hear our National Anthem and to have an Olympic Gold Medal placed around your neck for the first time
WKThe only way I can describe it is you just start to bawl like a baby. The Star Spangled Banner is playing, there is the roar of the crowd and you realize that your dream has come true. You are standing there for America and it isn’t just for you. As I heard, ‘Oh say can you see by the dawn’s early light’ it was so emotional. I’ll never forget it. I’m getting choked up just talking about it right now.
GCR:In 1956 there was a crowded field aiming to make the U.S. team as you won at 15’, followed by George Mattos at 14’ 10 ½ and five vaulters at 14’ 8 ½. How tense was the competition since the U.S. had seven of the top nine pole vaulters in the world and only three could make the team?
WKIt always was hard to make the U.S. team and we had great competition all through the indoor and outdoor season. In all of the events it seemed to be close. There wasn’t someone way out in front like Usain Bolt at the 2008 Olympics. Guys like Mel Patton, Harrison Dillard and Barney Ewell in the sprints were always together. The competition was so great.
GCR:It is often more difficult to defend a title than to win it the first time. How true was this for you in Melbourne at the 1956 Olympics as you cleared heights, the bar was raised and competition for Gold and Silver came down to you and teammate, Bob Gutowski, an alternate who competed due to Jim Graham’s injury?
WKIt’s was the strangest thing in Melbourne as the mirage was gone. There was nowhere to go but down. If I didn’t win it would have been really disappointing. It’s not nearly as great as when you win the first time. And I almost flunked out in Melbourne. They hadn’t told me where the standards were and I nearly went out at a low height.
GCR:When you cleared the winning height and Bob missed which emotion dominated – excitement or relief?
WKI was just so relieved when I made the winning vault. I was in the sawdust looking up and I was praying as I looked at the crossbar because the wind was about to blow it off. Bobby had pulled a muscle and we were neck and neck and this other guy Rubinov had a fiberglass pole and went about two feet over the bar at 15 feet but he dropped on it. He would have won easily. That was the introduction of the fiberglass pole.
GCR:The 1956 Olympics were held very late in the year near the end of November to coincide with the start of the Australian summer. Did this present any complications to you and the other athletes since this is usually the off-season in the U.S.?
WKThe toughest thing was the changing weather as it was 85 degrees one day and 30 the next. That’s why I got hurt which affected me in the decathlon because when I was training the weather changed – it went real cold.
GCR:For any of your Olympic competitions do you have any special memories of the Opening or Closing Ceremonies?
WKIn 1952 for the Opening ceremonies the great distance runner Paavo Nurmi ran into the stadium… Paavo Nurmi… I had read so much about him. I visited his tie shop in Helsinki and we talked for a bit even though he couldn’t talk much English and I couldn’t talk Finnish. He said one thing to me that was interesting, ‘Do you have kids?’ And I answered, ‘Yes.’ Then he said, ‘Do they have big feet?’ When I said they did, then he said, ‘You have to have big feet to be a runner.’
GCR:During the three Olympic Games did you watch many other track and field events, attend other Olympic sporting competitions or hang out with any athletes?
WKOh yes I loved it all. I spent my life giving speeches and have given thousands of speeches and all of them were related to the Olympics. There were many great memories of the competition. Harrison Dillard winning the 100 meters in 1948 was exciting as was Lloyd LaBeach beating Herb McKenley. And then the great race between McKenley and Arthur Wint – oh my God! That was a thrilling race. Watching the Jamaican 4 x 400 meter relay team with Wint, Leslie Laing, McKenley and George Rhoden was exciting. They were winners of the Gold Medal and then Emil Zatopek came into the stadium after winning the 5,000 meters, 10,000 meters and marathon. The Jamaicans hoisted Zatopek on their shoulders and took him around the field – it was really great stuff. Seeing Parry O’Brien win the shot put was something – he had trained by the light of the Olympic torch in L.A. Tom Courtney beat Derek Johnson just by a hair in the 1956 800 meters, he passed out and they had to wait for him to wake up before he could get his Gold Medal. That was an enormous race. Ron Delaney winning the 1,500 meters was big as he beat Landry. One of the most beautiful things was Alain Mimoun of France winning the marathon in 1956 and greeting Zatopek when he came in. He said, ‘Emil, it is I! I have won!’ And of course he had been second to Zatopek in many of the races Zatopek had won. Josy Barthel winning the 1500 meters from Roger Bannister in 1952 was amazing. It all was marvelous!
GCR:In addition to the pole vault, you also won the AAU decathlon three times, qualified for the 1956 Olympic team and finished in 12th place. Compare and contrast competing in the pole vault versus the decathlon and how much attention did you give to the decathlon in training?
WKYes, I had won the national decathlon three times and I was on the team with Rafer Johnson and Milt Campbell and had pulled a tendon in my left foot when I was training. That injury limited me, but I finished the decathlon and was a little lucky to win the pole vault. The odd thing is that if you are a pole vaulter you were inclined to do the decathlon. I got over 1,300 points in the pole vault so if an athlete could pole vault he had a big edge and the other athletes had to do very well in the other events. So I won those three national titles mainly with my pole vaulting. My big regret is that I never really trained fully for the decathlon. I never trained at all for the 1,500 meters. For example, when I won in Santa Barbara I missed Bob Matthias’ World Record by 26 points. If I had trained just a little bit I could have broken the World Record in the decathlon and that would have made me a much better athlete than just a vaulter.
GCR:You were pole vault champion at the first two Pan American Games in 1951 at Buenos Aires and in 1955 in Mexico City. Does anything jump to the forefront of your mind as to the competition, stadium, crowds and visits to these places?
WKThe crowds loved the Pan Am Games. I don’t think people realize how big a sport track and field is around the world. Soccer is number one and we have football, basketball and baseball in the U.S., but track and field is very high on the list all around the world – everyone loves it. In 1955 Parry O’Brien won the shot put and Fortune Gordien won the discus – I thought he’d win the Olympics but he got beat out. The altitude in Mexico City was good for four or five inches in the pole vault. I don’t think it is fair for altitude to count for records.
GCR:You won your final AAU indoor and outdoor pole vault titles in 1957. At the age of 31 were you ready to move on with other parts of your life and was it sort of difficult to leave the athletic competition behind?
WKI say I was ready, but I was still in great shape even when I was 40 years old. Jesse Owens and I were part of an event on State Street in Chicago. I pole vaulted 15-9, which would have been a World Record, but it didn’t count because I was considered professional. Jesse ran a 100 meters and he was well into his forties.
GCR:Ordained in 1946 as a minister in the Church of the Brethren, how important were your religious beliefs in keeping your athletic pursuits in perspective, helping you to always do your best with your talent and for maintaining balance in your life?
WKI don’t believe that you should pray to win or for someone to lose - this stuff when someone goes in a boxing ring and crosses themselves. This came up with the Denver Broncos quarterback, Tim Tebow, and I think it’s sort of a travesty. Prayer is inside you and prayer helps you to do your best, but God is not involved in your beating someone. To me I am certain that the God of this big universe is not concerned about me pole vaulting 14-6 as that doesn’t make sense. The two greatest things that happened to me were when I was 16 years old. I was converted and I stated relating my life to what God wanted me to be. Then secondly, a guy bought me a membership in the YMCA and I got in with people who combined body, mind, spirit and social which correlated. Not just in sports, but in life religion holds a balance. We need more religion today as there is just too much greed, selfishness and putting others down. We need a kingdom of God on earth where instead of profit we focus on service. I’d like to found a college based on the Christian-social point of view. These two scriptures make my point. Number one is, ‘What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his soul.’ Number two is, ‘The kings and rulers exercise dominion over you, so shall it not be with you who would be great among you let him be the servant of all.’ We need more service. We need more love and helping people. We have people making 50 billion dollars while others are starving. It’s absurd. I believe in the social teachings of Jesus.
GCR:You were the first athlete to appear on the front of Wheaties cereal boxes starting in 1958 were a spokesman through the mid-1960s and helped with the Wheaties Sports Federation which encouraged participation in Olympic sports. How rewarding was this relationship in terms of keeping you connected with the sport and helping others to be more healthy and active?
WKHere is a statistic that you won’t believe. I couldn’t go everywhere so I talked Wheaties into putting my speeches onto film. They did and they kept count of the number of people who had seen those films. For a period of 15 to 20 years 43 million people saw those films – that’s more than ‘Gone with the Wind.’ (Hearty laughter from Bob). Those films went everywhere – junior highs, senior high schools, Rotary Clubs, IBM. I spoke for IBM 117 times. I went all over the country speaking. I had been preaching the gospel of the Olympics for 40 years. The truth is a lot of those Olympic stories are more inspiring to many people than those in the bible. But religious people didn’t like when I said that.
GCR:Let’s go back to your childhood and your formative athletic years. Were you a youngster who played all sports and were one of the more athletic kids??
WKI played all sports. I was all state in football and we won the state championship. I averaged 22 points a game in basketball and I was fifth in the state of Illinois in diving. I was even thinking about professional golf at one time. So I did it all. I was good in football and was the best tackler on the defense even though I only weighed 145 pounds. On offense I was the quarterback and called all of the plays. I had a record for the most completions in passing and Coach Ray Eliot wanted me to play football at Illinois but I turned it down for pole vaulting.
GCR:How did you get started in track and field and specifically pole vaulting?
WKWhen I was 13 years old the gym coach came down the line of kids and said, ‘Richards, you’ve got good arms – go pole vault.’ I could walk around the block on my hands. I’d have made a good gymnast. So I got started pole vaulting at 13 and literally jumped every day from that point on.
GCR:You tied for fifth place in the pole vault at the 1947 Illinois State High School Championships. What do you recall of that competition and of your coaches?
WKI think I went 12 feet at that state meet. I think my coaches names were Stewart and McCormick, but at night I wrestle with just what were the names of my coaches. The coaches really helped make me a decathlete as they had me doing so many events.
GCR:Who was you collegiate coach and how did he help your progression as a pole vaulter? Did he encourage you to also compete in the decathlon?
WKChampaign, Illinois was the home of Harold Osborn who won the Gold medal in 1924 in both the high jump and the decathlon, so he was kind of my coach when I was at the University of Illinois. He would put motion pictures of Dutch Warmerdam on the wall and pictures of me and we would analyze them. He really was the greatest coach I had. Do you realize what coincidence that was to live in the same town a two-time Gold Medalist? I was so small that he never recommended my doing the decathlon. Later on I won the national decathlon championships and broke Jim Thorpe’s World Record in the ‘All Around’ which had ten events like the decathlon except the hammer throw is in place of one of the events, there is a race walk instead of the 1,500 meter run and a third event is different.
GCR:You won the Big Ten and NCAA Championships in 1947. Were the Olympics starting to get on your radar and when did they become a goal?
WKOh yes I thought about the Olympics but I didn’t think I would win. In a sense I grew into the Gold medal. I didn’t have those thoughts at first at all. Some people start off at five years of age thinking they want to win a Gold Medal. But it came upon me late as in 1947 and 1948 I started thinking that I could win the Olympics. It happened when went over a crossbar at 14 feet, three inches by about eight or nine inches and I realized that I was as good as anybody in the world.
GCR: Question="Pole vaulting takes speed, strength and agility. What were some of the areas you focused on in your training and what were your strengths and weaknesses? Also, what did you need to do to be more competitive in the decathlon?
WKI had a strong back and I did a lot of curls, military presses, deep knee bends. But I didn’t do the distance work for the decathlon. I only ran a 4:51 for 1,500 meters. I could have run a 4:30 or 4:40 if I had trained more – I could have broken that decathlon record all to pieces, but I was so dead. Whizzer White was running next to me and kept saying, ‘you can do it, Bob – you can do it.’ But my legs just wouldn’t go. It was a lack of training if I had trained for the decathlon I would have been a good one.
GCR:Who were some of your favorite competitors and adversaries from your days as a pole vaulter because of their toughness or that they pushed you, so to speak, to new heights?
WKBoo Moorcom and Don Laz. We went head to head all of the time. Also Don Cooper was a strong competitor. I really had some great competition. One of my cardinal principles is that competition makes you.
GCR:Advancements in technology improved pole vaulting implements from metal to bamboo to fiberglass. How do you think it would have affected you based on your abilities if fiberglass poles had been used back I your competitive days?
WKWell, I tried some but I never could adjust. For example, when you pole vault with a steel pole the first thing you do when you hit the box is you pull like mad. With fiberglass the first thing you do is push like mad. So it is an entirely different event. You load the pole as it is a spring. So with fiberglass poles vaulters push forward to load the pole so it pulls them up. I don’t think I would have been as good. People have said to me that I would have done well with fiberglass poles, but I had a real strong back, was a good gymnast and I think the metal pole was good for me.
GCR:You never know because your four sons were also top pole vaulters and they used fiberglass poles. Brandon set the national high school record at 18-2 in 1985; Tom won the CIF California State Meet in 1988; Bob, Junior was second in the same meet in 1968 and later ranked #7 in the USA in 1973 and Paul vaulted 16-4. How fulfilling was it for you as a dad to have your sons follow in your footsteps?
WKIt’s the funniest things in the world as I had sons who were vastly better athletes than I was. Of course the level of competition had gone way up, but Brandon held that national high school record for 13 years. Tommy also scored over 7,900 points in the decathlon – he stills holds the record at Baylor. We still hold the family pole vault record if you take the top five in one family. Again I say it - my boys were vastly better athletes than I ever was.
GCR:You have coached many athletes - how satisfying is it to help others succeed compared to your own personal accomplishments?
WKIt’s almost more thrilling, but there is nothing like bringing out the best in yourself. You can work like mad with others, but the only buttons you can really push are the ones inside of you.
GCR:You were inducted into several Halls of Fame including the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame in 1983 and the United States National Track and Field Hall of Fame in 1975. You also were recipient of the 1951 Sullivan Award as the nation’s top amateur athlete. How does it feel to be so honored by these organizations and others throughout your life?
WKIt is a bit unbelievable now as I look back - unbelievable. I am a member of seven athletic halls of fame and three speakers’ halls of fame. And I have a Masters – I was teaching Sociology at the university of Illinois when I was 21 years old. I have had the most gifted life as I also did the Wheaties promotion and travelled all over the world. There is hardly anyone who can match what happened to me – I went to India and they wanted me to coach their team, I went to Germany and they take me out on the shoulders singing ‘Home on the Range,’ I go to Ceylon and their representatives said I made a greater impact on Ceylon than the U.S. Embassy had in 60 years. I met the most incredible people in the world. I was there at the start of Wide World of Sports and the Russian-USA dual track meet. I started giving money to the U.S. Olympic fund. We named the All-Americans in every sport except football when I was with Wheaties. Just imagine – it is beyond belief for this little old five feet nine inch, 150 pound guy. Amazing!
GCR:After you retired from competitive pole vaulting what did you do for fitness and didn’t you participate in later years in some age group competition??
WKI helped to start master’s track and field programs. At John Muir College we had track meets every weekend. A lot of the master’s athletes in San Diego think they started it, but it really got started at John Muir College.
GCR:What do you do now for health and fitness?
WKI’ve got a heart problem. I may have to get a transplant. I hope they will love me enough to give me a transplant. I was training up to a few years ago, but with my heart problem I’m pretty weak now.
GCR:What excites you and what goals do you have for your life?
WKI want to live to be 110 years old. I’m 86 years old now and I’ve had 100 lives – more than anyone can imagine – I’ve really had a beautiful life.
GCR:What are the major lessons you have learned during your life from growing up during the Great Depression and World War II years, the discipline of athletics, the importance of your faith and any adversity you have faced that you would like to share with my readers
WKWhen I look back at my life, frankly, I am amazed that I was able to do so much - but the culture made it possible. It was after World War II and we had 16 million men in uniform all over the world. They came home and never had a chance to compete like I did. I’ve read over 10,000 books and I gave 3,003 speeches in my life. The most important two things I will share are to love God and to love your fellow man. These are the greatest teachings in the history of the world. Also, live up to the greatest potential within yourself. You never know how good you are until you have a goal that pulls it out. You become your goal. Go out to be the best in the world.
 Inside Stuff
Hobbies/InterestsI’ve had a lot of horses and I love horses. I work every day and love to fix things. I can work on anything – even diesel engines. I come out of the school of thought where you are willing to work and try anything
NicknamesAt times they called me ‘The Vaulting Vicar’ or ‘The Pole Vaulting Parson,’ but that’s about it. I’m just ‘Bob.’ I don’t even like to be called ‘Reverend Bob’ – just ‘Bob’
Favorite moviesI haven’t seen many movies, but I saw one recently that I love, ‘War Horse.’ Another is ‘Sea Biscuit.’ Obviously, they are in line with my love for horses
Favorite TV showsThe truth of the matter is I haven’t watched much television. I did like watching the recent NBA basketball playoff games
Favorite songsI like the old songs like ‘The Rose,’ ‘Two Sweethearts’ and ‘You Belong to My Heart.’ I love to sing so I love the old operatic songs
Favorite booksI mostly enjoy philosophical books like ‘Plato’s Republic’ and I like books about the universe. I enjoy studying Albert Einstein and read everything I can about him. I did my Master’s thesis on Emmanual Kampf, the great German philosopher. My philosophy is like his more than anybody else. Dr. Hiller’s book on interdependence and building a world of interdependence was a great book – a textbook that I used to teach from at Illinois. I’m reading a book now by Sigmund Freud on psychoanalysis which is excellent. I just finished three books – I read books all of the time. But here is the most interesting story of mine about a book. I had an unusual experience when a man handed me a book, ‘How to Win Friends and Influence People,’ by Dale Carnegie. When I first read the book I had a Philosophy Fellowship and was teaching at the University of Illinois. When I got the book I laughed. The first page said, ‘Smile,’ and I laughed. The second page said, ‘Say nice things about people,’ and I laughed again. And the third page said, ‘Believe you can do something with your life because you can.’ And it changed my life. That little book was so powerful
First carI never had a car when I was younger, but I had a motorcycle. When I went to the 1948 Olympic Games I got an HAS motorcycle. So I rode it home and went to college on that. I didn’t have a car until I was about 30 years old and it was an old 1937 Oldsmobile
Current carsI drive a little Nissan. I also have three Lincoln Town Car Continentals, including a 1995 model which is the greatest car ever built
First JobsCaddying at a golf club for 75 cents an hour. Later on when World War II started I went out to Seattle’s shipyards and became an electrician’s helper. We built Destroyers. Then after that I taught at the University of Illinois
FamilyI told you about my sons Tommy, Brandon, Bobby and Paul – great athletes. My kids are wonderful kids who are smart and high achievers. I have two granddaughters – one is a top Public Relations professional and the other has five kids
PetsI have five dogs. My biggest weakness is that I love animals. If I see an animal hurting or starving, it hurts me. I think one of the biggest problems with many religions is that they don’t consider that animals can live forever in the afterlife too – not just man, but the animals
Favorite breakfastI still eat Wheaties, but mostly I eat them right before I go to bed
Favorite mealSteak and potatoes, though I’m eating more fish now. I also am eating less meat and more vegetables
Favorite beveragesMostly milk. Everyone laughs when I say that milk was my substitute for steroids, but I’ve drank milk all of my life
First pole vaulting memoryI remember vaulting six feet, nine inches in my first meet and I won the meet
Pole vault heroesDutch Warmerdam
Greatest athletic momentsWinning my first Olympic Gold Medal – the greatest experience a boy can know! Although I have to say that when I won the U.S. decathlon title in Santa Barbara that almost equaled the Olympic win because I always considered the decathlon a greater event than the pole vault
Worst athletic momentThe 1948 Olympics because the weather was so bad and it affected my chance to win
Childhood dreamsTo be quite honest I didn’t have the mind that could imagine going around the world and doing great things. I just kind of existed. For example when we played football there weren’t shoes big enough for me, so I played barefoot. It was that kind of a world. I used to go down to the park and do chin ups on the bar. My little world was just being little Bobby Richards who stuttered and I didn’t have much of a personality
Favorite places to travelScandinavia without question – Sweden, Norway, Finland and Copenhagen, Denmark
Final Comments from InterviewerIt was an honor to spend over an hour conversing with the only man in Olympic history to win the Gold Medal in the pole vault twice. Bob is articulate, thoughtful, candid and humorous. When we were concluding the interview he said, 'Where do you come up with all of this stuff? (Laughing heartily) This may amaze you but this is the longest interview I’ve ever had.' I told Bob that I've heard that on many occasions!