5,000-Meter Champion Bob Schul Part 1: A Kid with the Heart of a Champion

Bob Schul

bob-schul-present-day

It’s not an uncommon story. The shy or sickly child finds his way through sport. Bob Schul was not born with gregarious social graces, and tended to stick to himself. In the sixth grade, one of his few social interactions was playing tag with his fellow students, where he learned something important. “I found out I could get away and they couldn’t catch me.”

It was a childhood insight that would lead Schul to distance running, to the track team at Miami  University of Ohio, a tutorship under Mihaly Igloi, the legendary track coach from Hungary, and gold medal glory at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Schul would become the first and only American to win the 5,000-meter race in Olympic history.

But first, Schul had to discover himself.

He knew he was a fast runner. But as he developed as an athlete, he and his coaches also learned he was tough, as well as toughminded. Schul addressed students his alma mater in 2014, and told them a couple of stories from his youth that spoke to a powerful internal drive.

In high school, Schul joined the football team – that’s American football, a sport in which you wear heavy padding and helmets and you launch yourself as projectiles into each other. As Schul told me, he was 155 cm tall and weighed only 59 kilos, and his teammates were 70 to 90 kilos heavy. “I had no business playing football.” He said that his high school was small, but his football team was very good, league champs in the previous five or so years.

There he was in a team practice, lined up in a Statue of Liberty, as a right end. The ball was snapped, he came off the line and back to the quarterback who handed him the ball. Schul swept left and tried to turn the corner when a defender crashed into Schul’s right side. Schul staggered to his feet, and likely in today’s game, might have sat down, if not for a play, for the rest of the game. Schul was back in the huddle, and played out the scrimmage, getting hit time and time again by the bigger boys. It was year’s later when talking with university football players that Schul actually had a hip pointer, and that players wore special foam protection for the hip, because “you can’t play with a hip pointer.” But Schul did, taking the punishment.

bob-schul-in-high-school
Bob Schul in high school
After graduating from high school, Schul enrolled at his neighborhood university, Miami of Ohio. He was not there on a scholarship. And in when he started, he was just fortunate to get a job washing dishes in the school dorm. But he was on the track team, and through the years, he worked himself into star status. It was April, 1964, only half a year from the Tokyo Olympics. Miami of Ohio was hosting a dual meet with a track team from Bowling Green State University in Ohio. Schul decided that he would go for it, he would try to break the four-minute mile.

Roger Bannister had already accomplished that milestone, as it were, ten years previously, but no one had ever done it before in Ohio. So when Schul let it be known he was going for it on his home track, the buzz began. First things first, the track was a mess, particularly the inside track which had gotten messy due to the Spring rains. In the days before all-weather tracks, people ran on tracks that were composed of rocks or waste product formed into chunks and broken down more finely. The rain had washed bigger chunks of rock onto the inside track. The excess cinder had to be carted off and the track smoothed before the event. Schul told officials this needed to be done and volunteered to help.

As it turned out, nobody came out to clear the track, so he started doing it himself. He recruited a few freshman and they cleared about seven loads of cinder from lane one. His efforts got him a clean lane to run in, but also a stiff shoulder. Not the best prep for an attempt at a state record, but Schul was ready.

In the meet, Schul ran an excellent race, and was on pace to break four minutes…until his shoulder stiffened. “I’m coming around feeling good going into my sprint and my shoulders tighten up. And when something happens in one part of your body the rest of your body just doesn’t want to cooperate.” But Schul gritted on. He did not break 4 minutes. But he set a new state record of 4 minutes and 0.9 seconds. Schul admits he was disappointed, feeling a bit victimized that he had to clean the track which impacted his shoulder, and may have cost him a second.

His point?

One thing about being an athlete. I have had this happen time after time. I want you to understand that like in athletics you’re not going to always win in the game of life. You’re going to lose sometimes. I’ve lost in partnerships, business, things didn’t go right. You will be able to do this thought. You will set aside – you haven’t won all the time. But that won’t bother you because you’ve been trained to overcome that. You’ll be better off than most people. You’ll be able to do whatever you want to do.