Monday, January 8, 2018

V 8 N. 1 Horace Ashenfelter R.I.P.

Horace Ashenfelter 1924-2018
Olympic Steeplechase Gold Medallist 1952

We learned today of the passing of Horace Ashenfelter.  His was a thundering victory of American distance running (Olympic gold, WR, only American to win that event) but it  seemed to have lost significance almost as quickly as it was felt.  How many young athletes in the mid to late 1950s ran inspired by Ashenfielter's win?  Not many.   Or for that matter how many ran inspired by Bob McMillen's silver medal in the 1500 meters in those Games?  We were limited to  one photo of Ashenfelter  going over the last hurdle slightly ahead of Vladimir Kazantsev. There was limited media, no social media, maybe a one time shot on TV, his FBI career that kept him from becoming an American icon until much later.

Au Contraire:

Dear George:
I have to disagree with you here.  A lot of young men in the early 50s followed the exploits of Fred Wit and Horace Ashenfelter.  They were the face of American distance running but, still, Ashenfelter's win was a big surprise.  A story I remember from those days involved Bob Kelly, a very good Chicago lad running distances for Loyola University and the University of Chicago Track Club.
As Bob told it, he was in an  AAU cross country championship running up with the lead guys including Wilt and Ashenfelter.  One of them said, "Bob, what are you doing up here?".   Kelly's reply was, "What are you doing BACK here?"
Take care,


I'm always drawn Ashenfelter's  facial and physical similarities to those of Kazantsev, how they could have been distantly related.  Could they even have been brothers?   Ironically Ashenfelter's younger brother Bill made the same Olympic  team in the same event although he did not advance from the heats.  Horace would run the next Olympics in the steeple and though he ran a creditable 8:51 in the heats (the silver medal time in Helsinki), he did not advance to the final in Melbourne.

Ashefelter Helskinki win   clik here to view race.  Hope you speak Finnish

Note in the film how Ashenfelter has to chop his steps to go over the last hurdle.  A disaster in the making but his strength carried him through.
It seems clear throughout the last laps that Ashenfelter was the superior athlete.  His form is great, he's stable, and he appears strong even before he makes his last bid to takeover the race.  Kazantsev on the other hand was all over the place in the early going.  Clearly out to break the field from the start  then coming back to the pack which stayed tightly bunched behind him during the middle points of the race.  Had he gotten some training tips from Zatopek?   He doesn't look that beaten or disappointed in the picture below.  He was a war hero and not doomed to the gulags when he got home.  John Disley the third place finisher would continue to be a leading light in British running and be instrumental in the promotion of Orienteering as a running sport.
Vladamir Kaznantsev, Horace Ashenfelter, John Disley
Also note this little blurb about Kazantsev which appears in which we use frequently to get stats and factoids about the Olympic games.

A veteran of World War II, Vladimir Kazantsev was wounded in action at the Kalinin Front in 1942. After the war, Kazantsev established himself among the top Soviet long-distance and steeplechase runners and in the early 1950s was considered one of the world's best steeplechasers. Kazantsev ran world bests in the steeple in 1951 and 1952, by clocking 8:49.8 in Moskva and 8:48.6 in Kyiv and went to the 1952 Olympic Games as the favorite for the 3,000 steeplechase gold medal. At the Olympics, Kazantsev won his heat comfortably and led by 20 metres with 700 metres remaining in the final, but American [Horace Ashenfelter] and British [John Disley] were closing hard. Kazantsev tripped on his last water jump, spraining his ankle, and was overtaken by Ashenfelter on the last curve, limping over the finish line in a disappointing second place.
Ashenfelter was an FBI agent, and the American media delighted in headlines about an FBI agent who had chased down a Soviet runner, But it was probably unknown to the Americans at that time, and what would have spiced up the story considerably, was that Kazantsev was also an intelligence agent, having been recruited to the KGB after demobilization and who would later retire from the agency with the rank of lieutenant colonel. Kazantsev won nine Soviet titles – steeplechase in 1950-53; 5K in 1948, 1950 and 1951; 10K in 1951; and cross-country in 1946. Kazantsev later taught physical education at the Police Academy of Soviet Union and was coach of the 1964 Soviet Olympic team.

In the 1950s,  we knew little of steeplechase as it was an event rarely seen on any American track except at Penn or at a National AAU meet where a temporary pit would be dug into the infield and the course run into that infield not designed or intended to be the approach.  As noted in the articles that follow, Ashenfelter would go on to win many, many national titles, yet except for a few friends in the field, he would be as anonymous as the rest of the FBI agents in the profession to which  he was drawn by Fred Wilt.  I had always thought he was  a lifetime employee of the agency, but the following articles note that he was only in the Bureau for seven years and became a salesman after that.  Apparently, being an Olympic champion, and world record holder while training at night after a long day in the field was not enough to impress J. Edgar Hoover and help him move off the shop floor.  His friends at Penn State where he attended college treated him better.  Today the indoor facility at Penn State is named after him and his Olympic gold medal is proudly displayed there.

As Ashefelter crossed the finish line in Helsinki,
one can only wonder what this  offical was thinking

By Mike Vorkunov | NJ Advance Media for
on August 12, 2012 at 5:00 AM, updated August 12, 2012 at 12:36 PM
As his wife remembers it, Olympic Stadium in Helsinki roared. The crowd grew louder and louder, and by the time Horace Ashenfelter had taken the lead of the steeplechase race in the 1952 Summer Games, it was chanting his name. The Finnish people, who had been so kind to Lillian and Horace as they toured the country by car leading into the Olympiad, were now pushing at his back and tugging at her heart.
These were polarized times, when the world was split in two during the Cold War. It was the first year the USSR had allowed its athletes in, and Vladimir Kazantsev was the heavy favorite in the event.
But Horace Ashenfelter was not of these affairs. Politics were of no interest to him. Still, they identified him. He was an FBI agent who spent days vetting federal job applicants and nights training by moonlight. As McCarthyism reigned, he was jokingly said to be the only American agent being chased by a Russian.
Yet, the only thing that went through his mind as he and Kazantsev maneuvered around the track was that no one would remember him for finishing second. Ashenfelter laughed as he recalled that thought last week at his Glen Ridge home, humbly handling attention he never sought.
“The atmosphere from Russia, that spoils their viewpoint in any time,” Ashenfelter said. “It never bothered me in one way or another. I’m not that political to get torn up about it. I never felt that I was doing a good favor to the United States by beating a Russian. He was just another one of the many competitors.”
He was a demure man from a Pennsylvania farm, where he grew up tending to his family’s 140 acres, picking apples from his father’s orchard, and competing at every sport but track in high school. He began to run by flying down the half-mile lane that led from his home to the main road in Collegeville. He had married his high school sweetheart, also a farm girl, and did so two hours after Lillian’s college graduation because she promised her parents to wait until after she left Ursinus College.
The sensationalism surrounding his 1952 feat may have elevated him but Ashenfelter’s record itself is strong enough to live on. He is the only American to have won Olympic gold in the steeplechase and the only American to hold the world record in it too. He qualified for two games and in three events.
There is an indoor track in Ashenfelter’s name at Penn State, where his medal is kept as well. It’s a more appropriate resting place than his sock drawer — where he kept it for some years — and with four sons, better there than choosing one to hand it down to.
Materialism does him no good, nor does retrospection. Yet at 89 years old, Ashenfelter can harken back with sharp detail to that day. He had joined the FBI in 1950, when he was urged by a friend, Fred Wilt, who ran with him at the New York Athletic Club and was an FBI agent. The Bureau had dropped its requirement for employees to need an accounting or law degree. Wilt called Ashenfelter, then on the farm, and told him to head down to the Philadelphia station and apply.

After a short stint in Boston, he was relocated to Newark in 1951, and he and Lillian settled in Glen Ridge — where they have lived since. The hours were long, often approaching 12 a day, and having to raise two children did not ease his burden of finding time to train. He would drive all over the state, investigating applicants and seeing if they were loyal Americans in the definition of the McCarthy era.
The training mantra became quality over quantity. Much like Roger Bannister, who as a medical student would take his lunch hour to run, Ashenfelter took his time at night — driven to qualify after faltering at the 1948 U.S. trials when a heat stroke on the track ended his chances. After putting the kids to bed, he would head off to one of two nearby parks.
At Carteret Park, the natural light led the way around its trails. Before workouts he would set up a hurdle he had made — to its proper specifications, with a resolute golden brown 4x4 piece of lumber as the crossbar — which would sit along a fence in the park for his use.
At Watsessing Park in Essex County, he would run around the track, his path lit by lights nearby. To hurdle, he would pull over a bench to jump. He would imagine the water pit, recreating its length in his mind.
That would be his existence in the months leading up to the Olympics and beyond them. Ashenfelter ran without a watch, relying on an internal clock, though time was always at a premium.
“You get 36 hours a day, that’s all,” Ashenfelter said jokingly. “You worked it in.”
The FBI was receptive to his mission, allowing him to work out of Princeton with the rest of the U.S. team in the month leading up to the Games and to build up extra leave time by working weekends and other overtime.
When Ashenfelter arrived in Finland, he first went on a tour of the country. Lillian, who was pregnant, joined him. In Helsinki, husband and wife had to split up. Horace moved to the Olympic village and Lillian stayed in town.
Before the final, Horace belied his normally humble disposition, promising victory to Lillian. After dinner, standing outside her apartment building there on the streets of Helsinki, Ashenfelter told his wife, “I’m going to win this.”
“Didn’t say it braggadociously,” Lillian remembers. “It was a fact. He was talking himself into it, I think.”
Ashenfelter went out slowly in the race, falling behind the lead group. He recovered, and by the middle laps he moved into first place. Kazantsev, the world-record holder, stayed to his outside shoulder. Ashenfelter stayed inside, motioning for Kazantsev to pass at times because he didn’t want to lead. The Russian would not pass, so Ashenfelter decided to punish him by forcing him to stay wide.
By then the crowd had become ebullient, and entering the final lap, with Kazantsev now in front, Lillian became overwhelmed. At one point, she could not watch, instead putting her head in her hands for a moment. She was sitting between two brothers who ran a track publication. Before the race, they had presented her with a time her husband would have to hit to win. The paper read “8:45.” Horace had not broken nine minutes coming into the Olympics and had run a career-best 8:51 in the preliminary heat.
Ashenfelter trailed until the final water pit. Kazantsev stumbled coming out of it and Ashenfelter surged, winning going away. He crossed the line in a world-record 8:45.40.
After he came home, Ashenfelter was praised. Parades were held in his hometown and at his alma mater. He met with J. Edgar Hoover, the head of the FBI. He even received an invitation onto the “What’s My Line?” TV program — though he was not allowed to go on, having to wait until after he left the FBI in 1957 to do so.
He retreated back into his normal life. He kept working. He kept running, and still goes for a jog to this day. He moved a few blocks away and has lived in the same house for the past 55 years.
He says he has taken everything with stoic perspective.
“I’m not a very expressive person,” Ashenfelter said. “I’m a good Pennsylvania Dutchman. You take things the way they come.”
But on that day he found himself caught up in the fray. The press would celebrate the symbolism of his win. The stadium boomed. Ashenfelter ran into the stands and kissed Lillian. Then he ran down to the track, and for the first time in his life, took a victory lap.
The following execerpt is from the NY Times Jan. 8, 2018 by Robert McFadden

It was one of the great upsets in Olympic history and the triumph of a lifetime for Ashenfelter, whose unassuming demeanor seemed to personify the Wheaties box all-American athlete in a postwar ideological struggle with lock step Soviet Communism. The competition was heightened by fears of nuclear war, a stalemate in the Korean conflict, diatribes of propaganda from Moscow and a fever of anti-Communism in the United States.
In Helsinki, the lasting imagery was Ashenfelter beaming atop the victory stand with Kazantsev shaking his hand from a step below. The gold medal draped around his neck, Ashenfelter basked in “The Star-Spangled Banner” and accepted a bouquet from a young Finn in a peasant dress. The crowd roared as he shook her hand, and there were cries of “Kiss her!” Shyly, he complied.
Reporters later asked Ashenfelter if he had been sure he would win. “It would sound conceited if I said sure,” he replied. “Just say I was surprised.”
There was also a telegram from the F.B.I. director, J. Edgar Hoover: “All your associates in the F.B.I. are proud of your brilliant victory and happy with you over establishment of a new record.”
In the end, the United States easily beat the Soviet Union in gold medals, 40 to 22, but led by only 76 to 71 in overall medals. The leaders were far ahead of the 67 other nations attending.
The New York Times called Ashenfelter “a true model for young Americans,” and he was pictured in the newspapers with sports heroes of the day: Robin Roberts, the Phillies pitcher who led the major leagues with 28 wins, and Rocky Marciano, the world heavyweight champion.
From the late 1940s, when Ashenfelter ran for Penn State, until his 1957 retirement from competition, Ashenfelter won 17 national indoor and outdoor titles in a variety of races: cross-country, the two-mile, the three-mile, the 10,000 meters and the steeplechase. He won the Sullivan Award as America’s outstanding amateur athlete of 1952 and entered the National Track and Field Hall of Fame in 1975. In 2001, Penn State’s indoor track was named for him.
Horace Ashenfelter III, who was nicknamed Nip, was born in Phoenixville, Pa., on Jan. 23, 1923. He grew up on a farm in nearby Collegeville, competed on football, basketball, baseball and track teams at Collegeville High School, and graduated in 1941. He joined the Army Air Corps in 1942, and became a pilot and stateside gunnery instructor.
He married Lillian Wright in 1945 and had four sons who survive him: Horace, James, Alan and John. Other survivors include his brother Donald; his sister, Jane; 12 grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.
Discharged in 1946, he studied physical education at Penn State, joined the track team and won National Collegiate Athletic Association outdoor two-mile runs in 1948 and 1949. The Penn Relay’s four-mile event in 1949 was won by a team that included three Ashenfelter brothers: Horace, Bill and Donald.
He graduated in 1949, began running for the New York Athletic Club and won 15 gold medals in Amateur Athletic Union competitions. Four years after his triumph in Helsinki, he went to the Olympics in Melbourne, Australia, but did no better than sixth in a steeplechase heat.
After nine years as an F.B.I. agent, investigating backgrounds of federal job applicants, Ashenfelter left in 1959 and joined Engelhard Industries as a metals salesman. He retired in 1993 but continued to run frequently in Glen Ridge, N.J., where he lived. The town’s annual Thanksgiving Day run is called the Ashenfelter eight-kilometer classic.

1 comment:

skwilli said...

The rabble that fill the Penn State Track and Field Alumni (Golf) group really appreciate your nice article here. And let it be known that Mr. Ashenfelter was a tremendous golfer. The golden putter prize for the longest putt on hole 18 at the Coach Harry Groves Golf Tourney is named for him.

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