By Lee Benson
It is a story that, once you’ve heard it, you’ll think either James Thurber wrote it or Metro Goldwyn Mayer made it up. It is equal parts Rocky, The Natural, and Chariots of Fire. It includes maybe the greatest football coach there ever was, maybe the greatest athlete there ever was, and maybe the greatest poem that ever was written.
It stretches from the jackrabbit flats of southern Utah to the King’s palace in Stockholm, Sweden, to ticker tape parades in New York City and Provo, Utah. And the value of an education figures in there too. If it weren’t for school, Alma Richards would never have known he could jump so high . . . and go so far.
Named after, in this order, a great prophet of the Book of Mormon and the fourth prophet of the LDS Church, Alma Wilford Richards was born on Feb. 20, 1890, to Mormon pioneer parents sent by Brigham Young to help settle the southern Utah outpost of Parowan. Of 10 children, Alma was the ninth. He liked everything about high plains country living, if you don’t count going to school. He dropped out in the eighth grade, when, at 14, he was already about as big as he’d ever get–6-foot-2, over 200 pounds. Few men in those days were bigger. He worked the land and in his father’s store (Parowan Mercantile & Cooperative) and, whenever he could, he would saddle up his horse and just ride.
One night when he was 18 he found himself far from home when a downpour hit. He made it to Lund, a small railroad town, and gave in to the rain, seeking more shelter than he could get sleeping under his horse. Because of the storm, the available rooms were at a premium, and he ended up sharing a bunk with a man on his way to California who’d come all the way from Michigan. His name was Professor Thomas Trueblood, a native American and lecturer with a traveling Indian exposition commissioned by the Michigan State University.
The conditions were more conducive to talking than sleeping that night, and so they talked through much of it, the boy and the professor. Alma found himself telling Dr. Trueblood about his hopes and dreams, how he wanted to be as free as the breeze. He longed to travel the world and see it all. The professor told him he could do as he wished, but only if he first got his education. It was learning, the professor said, that opened such doors of freedom.
By the time the rain stopped and the sun came up, Alma had made up his mind: His days as a dropout were history. He kicked his horse and didn’t stop until he got to Beaver, Utah, where he enrolled in the Murdock Academy, a private school, grades nine through twelve. He moved in with his sister and her husband, who had a home near the school. (When you have nine brothers and sisters and almost all of them are older, it can come in handy.)
On his way to becoming “an educated man,” one of the Murdock teachers asked Alma, the biggest kid in the school, if he’d like to join the track team. Alma didn’t know how to answer. He knew nothing about athletics. All he’d ever raced were rabbits.
The teacher suggested he at least give it a try.
There have been worse suggestions.
The shot put, the discus, the sprints, the distance runs, the pole vault. You name it, Alma entered it. In the end, he didn’t just join the track team. He was the track team. Three months later, when the state finals were held in Salt Lake City, Alma Richards, all by himself, scored enough points to win the Utah state team championship for his school. Improbably, little Murdock Academy unseated Salt Lake High, the perennial powerhouse, 32 points to 22, and took the first place trophy back home to Beaver.
By itself, not a bad story to tell the grandkids. But heck, that was just the warmup.
The next year, Alma transferred to the Brigham Young High School in Provo. At the turn of the century, the students of BY High and Brigham Young University co-mingled on the same campus. So it was that, once again, as was his wont, Alma caught the eye of a coach and an educator. This time it was a man named Eugene L. Roberts, who everyone called “Timpanogos.” Roberts coached the track team at Brigham Young. One day, after watching Alma’s jumping ability while he played a pickup game of basketball, Timpanogos Roberts pulled the young student aside.
“See that bar?” he said.
“Jump over it.”
Still wearing his basketball uniform, Alma watched a few others go over the bar and then, with no further warmup, ran toward the high jump pit and cleanly cleared the bar.
Timpanogos Roberts went pale.
The bar was set at five feet, eleven and one-half inches.
The school record was six feet two inches.
The world record was six feet seven inches.
The coach, not realizing the 21-year-old in front of him was still in high school, stammered out a question Alma had heard before.
“Like to join the track team?”
Roberts had coached thousands of athletes and never seen anyone so natural. With a little coaching, he told Alma, he could have him jumping with the best in the world; he could get him ready for the Olympic Games.
Said Alma, “The what?”
And so life took another dramatic swing for Alma Richards, as he and Roberts went to work. Through the fall and winter they studied form and technique. Daily they’d meet and train. The Olympics, Roberts explained, were to be held late the next summer in Stockholm, Sweden. Flush from the resounding success of the previous Olympic Games, held in London in 1908, there was considerable interest building around the world in anticipation of the Stockholm Games. The United States now had a full-fledged official Olympic committee, and the dates and times for any number of trials that would select the official U.S. team had been posted at schools and athletic clubs around the country. For his new protege, Roberts targeted the high jump trials scheduled in Chicago in May.
But if the athletic community was enthused about the new Olympic movement–the first Olympic Games of the “modern” era had been held just 16 years earlier, in 1896 in Athens–the world at large wasn’t yet so enamored of either its success or commercial value. That’s what Roberts found out as he made the rounds of the businesses and philanthropists in Provo, trying to raise money so he and Alma could book passage to the meet in Chicago. Benefactors were few and far between. In six months all the coach could raise, thanks mostly to a $150 donation from the BYU administration, was enough for one passage. One of them wouldn’t be able to go.
At the Provo station in early May of 1912, Roberts ushered Alma onto the train. He gave him some last-second advice, wished him luck, and, for good measure, gave him a rolled-up copy of Rudyard Kipling’s poem If, the coach’s personal favorite.
“Read it,” he told him. “It will bring you inspiration.”
Little could Alma realize at the time how literal much of that poem’s advice would be:
The part about “If you can make a heap of all your winnings, and risk it on one turn of pitch and toss” . . .
. . . And the part about “If you can walk with kings nor lose the common touch” . . .
. . . And the part about “If you can fill each unforgiving minute with sixty seconds worth of distance run.”
He got to Chicago late in the afternoon the day before the meet. Upon Roberts’ advice, he went straight to the track at Northwestern University and took a few practice jumps. He routinely cleared the bar at heights above six feet, finishing with a jump of six-two. Fortunately, as he did so, a man was watching from the far end of the field. That man was Amos Alonzo Stagg, the football coach at the University of Chicago and one of the most powerful men in sports in the country. Coach Stagg was a member of the Olympic selection committee.
At the next day’s competition, Alma was the most anonymous contestant there. No one knew who he was or where he came from. Since he wasn’t a college student yet, he had never actually competed anywhere but in Utah, and so he had no real credentials. Undaunted by his lack of notoriety, however, he jumped as well as he ever had and, with a jump of six-three, wound up winning the competition.
But politics and the Olympics have always been fast friends, and 1911 was no different than now. When the results of the Chicago meet were sent to the selection committee in New York, Alma Richards was not assigned to the U.S. team because no one had heard of him. He was dismissed as a “one-meet wonder,” a “fluke.” Well-known (and well-connected) jumpers from other “trials” held in California (at Stanford) and on the East Coast (at Harvard) were named to the United States’ high-jump team. The high school kid from Utah was out of luck.
Or so it seemed, until Amos Alonzo Stagg cleared his throat.
Apparently, Stagg arrived late in New York for the official “selections,” because he didn’t contribute his input until the high jump team had already been selected. It wasn’t until he scanned the list and noticed that “Richards” was not on it that he asked why. His fellow selectors told him. To which Stagg said, “I saw this kid jump with my own eyes. I saw him jump six feet in his sweats!” A spirited debate ensued. Stagg won.
They put A. Richards on the “supplemental” Olympic team. He would be sailing to Stockholm after all.
Instead of going west to Provo after the trials, Alma went east to New York, where he boarded the USS Finland, bound for Sweden with the rest of the U.S. team.
He was not the toast of the boat. Rustling jackrabbits in Parowan was one thing; sailing on an ocean liner with the cream of America’s athletes was another. Rube, bumpkin, hayseed, hick: name your turn-of-the-century rural insult and that’s what they called Alma. The name didn’t help either, and neither did the case of red-eye he developed as they crossed the ocean. He had to constantly wear a floppy felt hat he found to keep the sun out.
When the ship finally docked in Stockholm, Alma was not at all unhappy to get off.
He was one of a crowd of American high-jumpers when the competition began a couple of days later in Stockholm’s sparkling new jewel of an Olympic stadium. These were the good old days of stockpiling the field, and 11 U.S. athletes were entered–among a total field of 57 athletes representing 20 countries. Among the Americans entered was George Horine, a Stanford University student and then world record-holder at six foot, seven inches; and Jim Thorpe, a Sac and Fox Indian from Oklahoma and star of the U.S. team who was also, beyond the high jump, entered in the Olympic pentathlon and decathlon competitions.
Young Alma Richards, still wearing that floppy felt hat, was just along for the ride.
And he looked it as the competition began. At the opening height he missed twice before a successful third, and final, try. At the next two heights, same thing.
But, at that, he was still alive while others weren’t so fortunate. By the time the bar got past six feet, one inch, the only Americans remaining were Horine, Thorpe, Egon Erickson . . . and Richards.
They were joined by one German, Hans Liesche, who was striking fear into them all. At every height, the lanky German had cleared the bar with ease on his opening try. No American could say the same.
When the bar was moved above six feet, two inches, Liesche did it again.
Only two Americans managed to finally clear the height on their third and final tries.
Horine . . .
. . . and Richards.
Now it was a battle by three men for the three medals as the height moved a quarter inch past six feet, three inches. Again, Liesche cleared on his first jump. Again, Horine and Richards missed on theirs.
On their second tries, the Americans missed again.
Horine, the world champion and pre-meet favorite, tried one more time- and missed.
If Richards missed, the gold medal was Liesche’s.
He did not.
Now there were just the two of them.
By this time, an amazing transformation had taken place among Richards’ teammates. They had become mesmerized by this country bumpkin who had been the butt of all their shipboard jokes, but now was battling the German head-to-head for the gold medal. They collectively assembled off to the side of the high jump pit to root for him. It was Horine and Jim Thorpe who led the cheering. Now they were not making fun of the guy in the floppy hat. They were his most ardent supporters.
The bar was raised to an even six feet, four inches.
Richards was to jump first.
But before he did, he walked to a spot on the infield grass. There, in full view of the sold out stadium crowd of 24,000, he took off his hat and kneeled on the ground. He said a prayer.
As he recounted in his memoirs, this is what he said: “God, give me strength. And if it’s right that I should win, give me the strength to do my best to set a good example all the days of my life.”
As soon as he said “Amen,” he put his “lucky” hat back on, walked to the end of the runway, and, without hesitation, raced for the bar.
He cleared it by what Thorpe and Horine would later agree was “a good two inches.”
After that, Leische never had a chance.
For the first time all day, he missed on his opening attempt. Then he missed on his second try, and then, as he composed himself for his third and final attempt, he was distracted by the conclusion of the 800-meter run. Looking over at the finish line, he watched as his countrymen, Hans Braun, the pre-race favorite, was surpassed at the tape by three Americans, led by Tad Meredith, an unknown teenager.
His third try was his worst.
The medals ceremony was held shortly thereafter, where the Olympic officials gave Horine the bronze medal and Liesche the silver. The King of Sweden himself, Gustav V, draped the gold medal around Richards’ neck, after which he invited Alma to his palace. He told him his son, the prince, was an aspiring high jumper and he’d appreciate it if Alma could give him some pointers.
As Alma spent his time at the palace in the ensuing days, Jim Thorpe managed to avenge being shut out of the high jump medals by winning both the pentathlon and decathlon, whereupon King Gustav made his famous “You, sir, are the finest athlete in the world” declaration. When they finally doused the flame and the USS Constitution set return sail for the States, Richards and Thorpe could compare king stories.
Upon landing in New York, the U.S. team, which won a resounding 61 medals in Stockholm, including 23 gold, was feted in a ticker tape parade down New York’s Fifth Avenue. For Richards, that was a forerunner to the one he’d get when he finally pulled into Provo about a week later, on Aug. 22, 1912. As he emerged from the train, more than one thousand people rushed to congratulate him. After many speeches and a heartfelt salute by Alma to Timpanogos Roberts, wherein he dedicated his gold medal to his coach, there was a parade from the station to the BY campus, where his final year awaited Alma . . . of high school.
He graduated from the Brigham Young prep school with honors and accepted a power company scholarship to attend Cornell University in New York. The Olympics did wonders for his self-confidence, and whereas he was once just a marginal student, his aptitude and attitude now were boundless. He thrived at Cornell, in the classroom and on the track. He was the national AAU high jump champion in 1913 and later, as he expanded his repertoire, he became a decathlete as well. By the time of the national AAU championships of 1915, held in conjunction with the World’s Fair in San Francisco, he became the national decathlon champion, finishing some 500 points ahead of a man by the name of Avery Brundage, who would later head the International Olympic Committee. He never did compete against Jim Thorpe in the decathlon, because Thorpe became a professional football player after the Stockholm Olympics and wasn’t eligible for amateur track competitions. But at the San Francisco meet, Richards’ 10-event points total in his first major decathlon was only slightly less than what Thorpe had scored in Stockholm.
He was far and away the United States’ best decathlete entering the 1916 Olympic Games, not to mention its best high jumper. Two gold medals was a distinct possibility. But those Games were never held, replaced instead by World War I. It was one of the ironies of Alma Richards’ life that he got to the Olympic Games when he hardly knew what they were–and didn’t get there when he had them squarely in his sights. After Stockholm, he would never return to an Olympic arena, and neither would Hans Liesche. On the date when they should have had their “rematch” in the 1916 Olympic Games that had been scheduled for Berlin, they instead were wearing the uniforms of the armies of their respective countries, on opposite sides of the fight.
Alma did manage to enter the American Expeditionary Force Track and Field Championships in Paris while he was a soldier, where, at the age of 29, he won the high jump and standing broad jump, finished second in the triple jump, and third in the broad jump. His personal total of 14 points was four points higher than anyone in the meet, and when he came to the winner’s podium for his fourth medal, General George Pershing himself said, “Whose medal are you after this time?” When Lieutenant Richards said, “Mine, Sir,” the General saluted. “Good to see old-timers still making good,” he said.
After graduating with honors from Cornell, Alma attended graduate school at Stanford before enrolling in law school at the University of Southern California. He got his law degree and, as high jumpers do, he passed the bar. But he chose not to practice law. Instead he went into teaching. He got a job as a science teacher in Los Angeles at Venice High School, where he remained for 32 years until he retired. To those who knew him, his choice of vocation came as no surprise. If it hadn’t been for teachers, he always said, he’d never have found his way.
He was named Utah’s track and field athlete of the century and was inducted into the national Helms Foundation Hall of Fame. After his death in 1963 he again returned, according to his wishes, home to Parowan, where he was buried.
Except for Kresimir Cosic, who played on Yugoslavia’s gold-medal winning basketball team in 1980, Alma Wilford Richards remains the only student from Brigham Young to win a gold medal in the Olympic Games–and even if it was Brigham Young High School, nobody’s quibbling. He just got a late start, was all, but he made up ground fast.
Lee Benson, who is a frequent contributor to Brigham Young Magazine, is a free-lance writer and a columnist for the Deseret News.