John Woodruff represented Pitt and his country in 1936 (Kirby Lee/Image of Sport-US PRESSWIRE)
With the Olympics coming up, we were asked to talk about our favorite moment from the event. Favorite? That was probably watching the 1992 Dream Team since I'm not old enough to remember the 1980 Miracle on Ice. But I wanted to come up with something Pitt-related and if that's the case, there's only one answer: John Woodruff in the 1936 Olympics.
Woodruff won the gold medal in the 800 meter race in those games. Everyone talks about, of course, the fact that Adolf Hitler had cast a pretty big shadow during the games. Hitler was openly against blacks competing and made a point of it to shake the hands of the white runners, but not the blacks.
Woodruff's victory during such a time is (as it should be) the primary focus. But there's another interesting thing that Pitt fans would be particularly interested in. At the time, he was only a Pitt freshman.
When you think of everything he probably had to endure at the time, that's pretty amazing. Think back to your freshman year in college. While there are 18- and 19-year olds that excel so much that they can participate in something like the Olympics, most of us were just trying to find out how to do the laundry.
Then there's the way Woodruff won the race:
He remembers the anguish of his Olympic race: "Phil Edwards, the Canadian doctor, set the pace, and it was very slow. On the first lap, I was on the inside, and I was trapped. I knew that the rules of running said if I tried to break out of a trap and fouled someone, I would be disqualified. At that point, I didn’t think I could win, but I had to do something."
Woodruff was a 21-year-old college freshman, an unsophisticated and, at 6 feet 3 inches, an ungainly runner. But he was a fast thinker, and he made a quick decision.
"I didn’t panic," he said. "I just figured if I had only one opportunity to win, this was it. I’ve heard people say that I slowed down or almost stopped. I didn’t almost stop. I stopped, and everyone else ran around me."
Then, with his stride of almost 10 feet, Woodruff ran around everyone else. He took the lead, lost it on the backstretch, but regained it on the final turn and won the gold medal.
Winning in the Olympics is one thing. To do it when you've come to a complete stop as Woodruff talks about ... wow.
Woodruff wasn't only a stellar athlete, he was the best in his sport at the time. And that's something that should never be forgotten.
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