Bob Richards Inspires the Youth of America

Two-time Olympic gold medalist, and 3-time national decathlon champion Bob Richards may be retired from vaulting and the decathlon, but he is still inspiring athletes today.  He has put out a lot of material that sends positive messages to young kids all over and has had an amazing career in the world of sports.

Richards says this of his start in vaulting:  “At age 13 I was 5’ tall, weighed 90 pounds and was slow, but I could do 41 chin-ups and I could walk around the park on my hands.  So I had pretty good shoulders and arms and there was a track meet in junior high school, in the 7th grade.  The coach went down the line and he said, ‘Richards you got good arms and shoulders- you go pole vault’ and I won my first pole vault at 6’9”.  It isn’t even a good high jump today, but that was the beginning of what you might call the greatest physical love of my life because I couldn’t stop pole vaulting from that point on.  I fell in love with the event and for 50 years I continued to pole vault.”

The vault took over, and Richards found himself competing in the Olympics and winning, twice.  This led to other opportunities to work in sports and influence young kids for the better.  We asked him about one of his more famous endeavors with Wheaties cereal and he said, “I had been eating Wheaties as a little boy playing in the park, softball and so-forth, and they had the picture of a baseball player hitting homeruns.  That was kind of my ideal.  Later on, after I won the Olympics, I signed with Union Oil to do a Union Oil show, which included an inspirational sports story at the end.  Well the Wheaties people came to me- they were looking for a new way to get back in sports.  They had a Jack Armstrong that was a detective, but it was falling flat so they wanted to get Wheaties back into sports and they said, ‘Bob would you take the honor of being the spokesperson for Wheaties?’  Well I had a good job with Union Oil, but I saw it as a way of influencing young people to get off dope and alcohol and bad living, and to be healthy and strong.  I didn’t care about what they paid me- I didn’t even ask what they paid me, but they said that they would support me in providing young people with ideals and goals and purposes.  That’s why I took the job.  Actually the job only paid $30,000 a year…What was important to me was we named all the All-Americans in every sport but football, we made films of my speeches (43,000,000 people saw these speech films), we made films on how-to in every sport, I went to Russia and all over the world to make films so that people could relate to a Russian-USA Dual Track Meet and we helped start Wide World of Sports because Wheaties sponsored a program that would do all sports (not just the big 4, but all sports).  It was a wonderful experience because the Wheaties Sports Federation, with a budget of $50,000 a year, actually shook the television world and the sports world.  We worked with the Olympic Committee raising money for the Olympics and we got the Russian-USA Track Meet started and so-forth and so on.  It wasn’t about money at all.  It was about helping America and young people to be fit, and to dream the great dreams of being in the Olympics.  That’s really what it was all about.”

Surprisingly, some of Richards’ most cherished accomplishments are not his most famous.  He tells us, “I won the Big 10 medal for scholarship and athletics, and that is my most prized trophy.”  He goes on to say, “I broke the world record held by Jim Thorpe [in the National All-Around Championship], who was named the greatest athlete of the century, by something like 600 or 700 points and I’m really proud of that.  That’s the only world record I held at the time.”  Richards also let us know that he was also inducted into the New York Hall of Fame for winning the Millrose Games for 11 straight years, which nobody else has ever done.

With all his accomplishments, this athlete has seen his share of bad times like all of us.  One growing experience he shared with us was his Olympic bronze medal he received in 1948.  Here is his take on the ordeal:  “When I got the bronze medal I was so disappointed because, when we got to London, it rained night and day.  The Olympics of 1948 was atrocious.  Have you ever tried to pole vault in a steady, constant rain?  That’s what we went through.  I only jumped 13’8”- I had been averaging 14’6”.  Boo Morcom was averaging 14’6”, but he didn’t even make 12’6”.  Guinn [Smith] won because he just was able to hold on when we were slipping down the pole and everything.  I was really disappointed because I should have won in ’48.”

He obviously learned how to work through the disappointment because he did get his gold.  However, the gold came with a bit of luck according to him.  Richards says this about winning his two gold medals:  “I was injured both times, in ‘52 and ‘56, when I won the gold so it was so lucky.  I know all of you are saying, ‘no it’s not luck’ and all that, but there is an element of luck in sports that you have to contend with.  Anyway, I feel very fortunate that I was able to compete for 13 years and be in three Olympics.”

Richards stayed active in vaulting for quite a few years after his wins.  We asked him about the last time he vaulted and here is what he says:  “I think the last time I pole vaulted was in a national masters’ championship in Chicago, Illinois; prior to that I had set a record of 12’ when I was 60.  I never was able to use a fiber glass pole.  I have to admit from the very beginning that I found out from Coach Hood that in fiber glass jumping, the instant you hit the box you push.  In steel pole vaulting you pull, so I never was able to change myself from pulling in fiber glass.  I jumped, I think, that 12’ when I was 60, but I later went into hammer throwing, 35 pound weight throwing and I got into the weight pentathlon.  I trained all the way up until age 75 or 80, and then I had a heart problem.  My highest jump ever was 15’6” and my grip was 13’4”.  I just barely missed 15’9”- the world record in Milwaukee.  My thumb hit it as I snapped down.  I won, the most important thing in my life really, 3 national decathlon championships.”

Since the changes in vaulting over the years have had an impact on Richards, we asked him about the changes.  He says that the fiberglass is great for women’s vaulting, and for getting higher, but he wishes the steel/stiff poles were still around for the sake of giving all a chance to try vaulting.  “I think we should have two vaults,” he tells us.  “I think we should have fiberglass and I think we should have steel pole vaulting- for all the poor schools and states like Iowa that has totally abandoned pole vaulting…just throw an aluminum pole out and let everyone use it and have stiff pole vaulting as well as spring pole vaulting.”

A challenge has even been placed when it comes to steel vaulting vs. fiberglass vaulting, according to Richards.  He and Don Bragg have offered $10,000 if anybody could jump 15’6” on their steel pole – Steve Smith (18’51/2”) tried and only got to 14’3”.  It’s no easy feat, even for the best of vaulters.

Since the switch to fiberglass, the United States has seen international competition change as well.  We can’t seem to get quite the height the Europeans are getting.  Richards gave us his opinion on that as well.  He tells us, “I don’t know why the Americans are not there [matching the European vaulters] because we’ve had several 19’6”ers.  Maybe it’s a different economic thing that happens.  They get salaries over there and our boys are constantly looking for support and so-forth.”

New crossbar pegs have also changed things for Richards.  They have affected him in competition before and he says, “I don’t know whether it’s better or not to have the pegs we had or the ones they have now, but boy I’m telling you that crossbar is its own determinate.”

As he has seen so many changes in the world of vaulting, we asked Richards what his advice would be to the youth of America.  Other than resting before major competitions, as he learned to do long ago, he says, “Pole vaulting is a very difficult sport…it’s a dare devil sport as well as a physical sport…it’s an intricate sport and it takes a lot of hours…If you’re going to be great at anything, you’ve got to train, train train…you’re going at an event that challenges everything you’ve got.”

We may not see any more vaulting from Richards, but he has not left his greatest physical love.  His book, The Heart of a Champion:  Inspiring True Stories of Challenge and Triumph, and one of his more famous speeches, Life’s Higher Goals, can be purchased and are highly recommended by many athletes.  His legacy lives on through his son as well.  He is proud of Riley Richards and his own pole vaulting.  We are told he is closing in on 13′ as an 8th grader and has already jumped 12′ indoors and 12′ outdoors this year- barely missing 12’6” and 13’.  It certainly runs in the family and the Richards name looks to be around a good while longer.


By:  Michelle Walthall

Bob_Richards_Wheaties Vaulter Magazine
Bob_Richards_Wheaties Vaulter Magazine

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