Guinn Smith had no business winning a gold medal in the pole vault at the 1948 London Olympics and he knew it.
It wasn’t just that he was 28 years old and seven years removed from winning an NCAA title while at Cal. Or that he was married with a nine-month-old son at home in the Bay Area.
It wasn’t the toll he paid while flying cargo planes over “The Hump” of the Himalayas into China during World War II. Or the doctors who later told him the knee injury he exacerbated during a crash landing would never completely heal.
It was the London rain.
“When I saw the rain, I got discouraged,” Smith said in a 1985 interview with the Oakland Tribune. “I’d never competed in the rain. I really did not expect to do well.”
Turns out, he was the only one who conquered the elements that day in London.
Bob Richards, who won gold medals in the pole vault in 1952 and ’56 but settled for a bronze at London, said rain fell on Wembley Stadium for nine straight hours before Smith prevailed.
“It was the most miserable, God-awfullest conditions ever for pole vaulting,” recalled Richards, whose face would later grace the Wheaties box. “He was heroic jumping 14 feet in that weather. He deserved that gold medal.”
The pole vault runway was under an inch of water most of the day, the sand landing pit hardened by the constant downpour.
Smith, who died at the age of 83 in 2004, had a few secret weapons.
Between attempts, Smith retreated to the dressing room to get out of the rain and retaped the end of his pole, with the sticky side out for a better grip.
Even so, Finland’s Erkki Kataja was positioned to win the gold medal, based on fewer misses, as the bar was raised to 14-1¼.
Smith actually changed poles before clearing 13-9¼, using one provided by Japanese vaulter Shuhei Nishida, silver medalist from the 1936 Games. Nishida wasn’t in London because Japan and Germany were banned from the ’48 Olympics for their roles in World War II.
Dr. Stephen Smith, the older of Guinn Smith’s two sons, recalls the story from his dad that Nishida mailed the pole directly to Smith before the Games, hoping it would bring him luck.
The late Art Rosenbaum told it differently in his Aug. 3, 1948 account in the San Francisco Chronicle. He said Nishida had sent 50 poles to the U.S. team as a gift.
Either way, with the gold medal at stake, Smith used one of Nishida’s poles to clear 14-1¼ on his final try after the Finnish vaulter had missed three times.
“My dad always seemed amazed he went over the bar,” Stephen Smith said, “and he attributed a lot of his good luck to the Japanese pole.”
Smith made one failed attempt at an Olympic record of 14-5, then called it a day.
“That bar didn’t look that high,” he said afterward. “It was the combined psychology of the rain and the fear of being embarrassed in front of all those people that made me miss a record.”
Smith, who lived much of the rest of his life in the Bay Area, had grown up in Pasadena before attending Cal, where he earned a degree in history and was twice an All-American in the pole vault.
By March of 1942 — just four months after the United States entered World War II — Smith had joined the military.
He was assigned as a pilot in the Army Air Corps. Eventually rising to the rank of captain, Smith flew cargo planes over what was called “The Hump” of the Himalayas into China after the Japanese cut off the Burma Road, a critical supply route.
Over a span of 42 months, the daily airlift delivered more than 650,000 tons of medical supplies, fuel, ammunition and food to Chinese and Allied troops.
It was harrowing duty, often at night, taking off from makeshift airstrips in northern India. The planes weren’t pressurized or outfitted with navigation equipment.
Often, crew members had to jettison seats and anything that wasn’t crucial in order to maintain altitude over the mountains.
The cost was high. Nearly 600 planes and more than 1,000 airmen were lost while making the 530-mile trek. Guinn Smith, part of the mission for more than a year, was one of the lucky ones.
“He never tried to be a hero,” said younger son Mark Smith, who said his father rarely spoke of his experiences in the war.
Richards said Smith had a special quality about him. “He was the epitome of the Western cowboy,” Richards said. “You could see those hard eyes. I think the reason we won the war was because of guys like Guinn Smith.”
Discharged from the U.S. Army in 1945, Smith returned to his career in finance, with no intention of pole vaulting again. But he was encouraged by his coaches and wife to pursue his Olympic dream.
Smith’s balky left knee was the remaining obstacle. As late as the spring of 1948, he told friends he didn’t think he would attend the U.S. trials. At times, according to an Oakland Tribune report, Smith competed with “excruciating pain” in his knee.
But at the trials in Evanston, Ill., he scaled a career-best 14-81/8 to finish second and secure an Olympic berth.
In London a month later, having overcome the weather and his doubts, Smith won the gold medal that now is displayed in the Boston home of son Mark Smith.
Years later, his sons struggled to pry details out of their dad. “He talked about what a thrill it was to represent the country,” Mark Smith said, “and he said he wished he could have gone higher.”
by: Jeff Faraudo