Discus Champ and Maverick Mac Wilkins Part 1: I Did it My Way

Mac Wilkins
Mac Wilkins, Photo/Foto: George Herringshaw, 04 September 1977

In many ways I was the bad guy, the black sheep of the ’76 Olympic Games. First, I was big and strong and had long hair and a beard, and that probably intimidated some people.

Whatever it was, Mac Wilkins had a way of ticking people off. Wilkins had just won the gold medal in the discus throw at the Montreal Olympics, and was asked by the press whether he won the gold for his country or himself. Wilkins replied that it was “for myself. I worked for it. The United States can share in it if they wish, but they had no part in winning it.”

The president of the United States Olympic Committee at the time, Phillip Krumm, called Wilkins, gold medalist in the discus throw at the Montreal Olympics, a “grandstander and a popoff,” and that his response was akin to “hating your parents.”

Wilkins was a maverick, often at odds with officials. In prepping for the Montreal Games, Wilkins said in the oral history of American Olympic gold medalist, Tales of Gold, that he had informed the USOC that he and his shot putter friend, Al Feuerbach, intended not to enter the Olympic Village at the same time as the rest of team so that they could continue to train independently.

“Al and I decided we didn’t want to check into the Village that far ahead of our event. I knew what it would be like; it would be mass chaos and constant stimulation, and when you get too much of that your mind goes blank, and you don’t know what you’re going, so you can’t concentrate.”

According to Wilkins, they never got approval, but still decided to hang back where they were training in Plattsburg, New York until the day before the opening ceremonies. Despite an intention to go to Montreal a few days later, they were ordered to Montreal for drug tests. Believing that the USOC would not kick a potential medalist off the team, he insisted that they send a car to pick them up and conduct the tests outside the Village. In the end, Wilkins got his way, and was able to stay out of the Village and prepare himself the way he wanted to.

We got back to the Village on the following Wednesday and checked in. it was perfect timing for me because once you check in you get a real adrenaline rush, and you can hold that for only so long. If you get it too soon, you’re going to be flat for your competition. But it came at just the right time for me. I did a little workout on Thursday, and I had a great workout on Friday. I hit 230 feet with a left-hand wind, which was a handicap. It was one of those times when, after the workout, you sit down to write in your diary, and you realize what you’ve done and what you’re capable of doing. It’s kind of overwhelming, and it brings tears to your eyes. This happens rarely, and I think it does because at those moment you are facing the fear of success and you’re accepting it and realizing that you can overcome it and reach your potential, which is usually beyond what you ever imagined.

The first day of the Olympics was the first day of competition for the discus throw. Wilkins watched his American competition, John Powell and Jay Silvester, make initial throws under the qualifying distance of 200 feet. Wilkins went up and tossed the discus 224 feet, 5 inches, an Olympic record.

The next day was the finals of the discus throw. Wilkins admitted he didn’t feel as sharp as the previous day, and ended up throwing the discuss 221 feet (67.5 meters) in the second round of the finals. It was not as far as the previous day’s record, but it was good enough to hold up as the greatest distance through the next four rounds. Wilkins believed that he knew exactly what he needed to do to get himself ready for winning. And when he executed on his plan, he was simply happy.

On the victory stand I was laughing and chuckling to myself and thinking, so this is what it’s all about. This is what you see on TV, and it comes down to this. This is easy and no big deal. Of course, the performance itself was relatively easy. The hard part was preparing physically and mentally to get to the level needed to make that performance.