Wottle and Wheating
On July 1, 1972, at the University of Oregon's Hayward Field, a standout runner from Ohio's Bowling Green State University tied the world record for the men's 800-meter race at Olympic Trials and earned himself a trip to Munich to compete in the 1972 Olympics.
Until he tied that record (1:44.3), the 21-year-old college student was little known outside of U.S. track & field circles. The Olympics would be his first international meet.
His name was Dave Wottle, and he ran in a white golf cap.
Despite running the first part of the 800m semis at the back of the pack, he qualified for the 800m finals at the Olympics. But he wasn't favored to medal. At the start of the 1972 Olympic 800m finals, ABC commentator Jim McKay simply introduced Wottle as "Dave Wottle with the golf cap from the United States."
Wottle ran the first lap not just dead last, but a few meters off the back.
On the backstretch, as the favorite Yevgeny Arzhanov from the Soviet Union made his move, Wottle began picking off the competition. In the final stretch, he passed everyone as if they were suddenly running with glue on the bottoms of their shoes. He caught Arzhanov at the line.
Jump forward 36 years, to 2008 Olympic Trials at Hayward Field, and two runners were also hovering in the back of the eight-man pack in the final of the men's 800.
Nick Symmonds made the first move with about 300 meters to go, and Andy Wheating went with him. By the final stretch, Symmonds's kick had put him solidly in the lead with Wheating gaining on the outside. They would cross the finish line 1-2 - 1:44.10 for Symmonds, 1:45.03 for Wheating - and along with Christian Smith, make the 2008 Olympic team in the men's 800.
Symmonds was one of the favorites in the race, Wheating the unknown. Although he had a breakout season running for the University of Oregon, 20-year-old Wheating has never competed in an international race. At 6'5", he doesn't even look like a typical middle-distance runner.
"I know I can run faster than I have," Wheating said during a week-long trip home to Norwich, Vermont, in mid-July to see family and friends. He has spent the last three weeks in Eugene doing mileage-based workouts that should have him peaking again when the Olympic 800 prelims start on August 20.
Since he switched from soccer to cross-country and track in high school, Wheating has considered the late Steve Prefontaine, the brash 1972 Olympian and former Oregon Duck, one of his heroes.
But he might be better off following in Wottle's footsteps. Why? Because the similarities in both temperament and talent between Wottle and Wheating are striking. And Wottle is the last American man to win an Olympic gold medal in the men's 800.
Since then, the only other Americans to medal in the event were Earl Jones and Johnny Gray who each won bronze medals at the 1984 and 1992 Olympics, respectively.
Unlike Prefontaine, who boldly predicted he would run the final mile of the 5,000-meter race at the 1972 Olympics in under four minutes, Wottle kept a lower profile at the Olympics. (Wottle also won a medal and Prefontaine finished fourth.) Similarly, Wheating is described as humble and gracious by his friends, coaches, and teachers.
Both Wottle and Wheating also had stellar collegiate track seasons prior to the Olympic Trials. Wottle won the 1,500m at 1972 NCAAs and the 800m at the National AAU Championships; this past spring, Wheating finished second - by 0.01 seconds - in the 800 at NCAAs.
Prior to the Olympics, Wottle had yet to make his mark internationally. USA Track & Field doesn't even have Wheating's bio listed on its Web site.
The two runners also have similar racing styles, hanging in the back until the second lap of the two-lap 800m race.
"(Wheating's) 800 looked just like mine," says Wottle, who admits that he doesn't follow track & field much anymore but did watch the 2008 Olympic Trials. "He kept himself in very good position. He has a good kick."
But he warns at the Olympics, there will be "a lot of great athletes with a lot of great (finishing) kicks."
"Nick (Symmonds)," he adds, "has an outstanding kick."
They have to run smart too, he advises.
"You have to move yourself to the outside of someone's shoulder," explains Wottle, who is now Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee. "Then you can move to the outside and not get boxed in."
Recalling his race at the Olympics, he confesses, "I had a chance of getting boxed in with 300 meters to go." But he moved to the outside.
When asked what advice he could give Wheating and Symmonds as they head to Beijing, Wottle says, "They have to go in thinking they can win. They (ran) 1:44 and 1:45. It's questionable if that kind of time will be good enough at the Olympics. But they have the capability to do better. They just have to be confident in their abilities to do well."
The world record in the 800 is 1:41.11, set by Wilson Kepketer of Denmark in 1997. Abubaker Kaki from Sudan has run the fastest 800 this year in 1:42.69.
Wottle says he was feeling very confident about his chances at the 1972 Olympics after running such a fast time at Trials. But between Trials on July 1 and the 800-meter final at the Olympics on September 2, he developed bursitis in his knee.
"I knew I could do well if I was healthy," he remembers. "I went in not as confident as I would have been had I not had the injury."
Assuming he remains injury free, Wheating is feeling good about his chances on the world stage. "It's hard not to be confident after having such a good season," he says.
Besides confidence, Wottle says that Wheating, Symmonds and Smith will also need another key ingredient to win an Olympic medal in August.
"It's a little bit a luck of the draw," says Wottle. "You have to be talented, but you have to be a little lucky too."
So was that his lucky hat on his head in Munich? No. He is far too practical for lucky charms. He started wearing the cap in June 1971 in the heat and humidity of an Ohio summer.
"It was a sweatband, a sun visor, and it kept the hair out of my eyes," he told the Toledo Blade in 2002. "I just got comfortable wearing it."
Wheating is heading to China on August 4 and might find such an accessory useful in the heat and humidity of Beijing. But no such luck.
"They won't allow them!" says the man forever remembered for his. "Right after 1972, the IOC passed a ruling that doesn't allow hats."
And another reason Wheating might be well-served to follow in Wottle's footsteps rather than Prefontaine's? Wottle beat "Pre."
In 1973, at a meet at Hayward Field, Wottle beat Prefontaine in the mile. It wasn't really fair, he says now, given that Prefontaine's specialty was longer distances. Prefontaine took the lead second lap of the four-lap race, with Wottle on his shoulder. In the final 220 yards, Wottle jumped and won in 3:53.3 - the sixth fastest mile ever recorded at that time, reported Sports Illustrated. Prefontaine crossed the line in 3:54.6.
Hat's off to Wottle. And hopefully Wheating too.
Peggy Shinn is a freelance contributor for teamusa.org. This story was not subject to the approval of the United States Olympic Committee or any National Governing Bodies.