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How Bruce Jenner Became The “World’s Greatest Athlete”

By Peggy Shinn | April 30, 2015, 5:03 p.m. (ET)

Bruce Jenner celebrates during his world record-setting performance in the decathlon at the Montreal 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal on July 1, 1976.

Thirty-nine years ago, Bruce Jenner launched himself into fame as a hero. The former decathlete, who recently announced that he is transgender, rose to fame as an Olympic champion in 1976 — long before he was a reality TV star.

With an infectious smile, Atlas-like physique, shaggy hair, charming personality and ability to slay his Soviet foe in the midst of the Cold War, Jenner became a real-life superhero at the Montreal 1976 Olympic Games — arguably the first U.S. Olympic icon of the modern TV era. And it launched him to fame. He was, as one reporter wrote, “a matinee idol in Olympic Stadium.”

Those Games were 39 years ago, so it’s easy to forget how the decathlon competition played out — especially for those who first learned of Jenner when “Keeping Up with the Kardashians” premiered in 2007.

Jenner’s role as an Olympian began at the 1972 Games in Munich, where he finished 10th in the decathlon. After the competition, he reportedly walked up to the champion, Nikolay Avilov from the Soviet Union, looked him in the eye, and announced, “Next time, I’m going to beat you.”

To meet that goal, he knew he had to train differently. In San Jose, California, he trained alongside America’s best athletes in decathlon’s disciplines: Al Feuerbach, then the world record holder in shot put, Mac Wilkins and John Powell, 1976 Olympic medalists in discus, Olympic gold medal-winning sprinter Millard Hampton, and hurdler Andre Phillips, among others.

“If you train with a decathlon man,” Jenner told Dave Anderson of The New York Times, “you can’t visualize that you can do much better. But if you throw the discus with Mac Wilkins or throw the shot with Al Feuerbach, then they’re 20 feet ahead of me. You learn much more that way.”

By the time Jenner reached Montreal, he was 26 and had won the Amateur Athletic Union decathlon title twice (1974 and 1976) and was the 1975 Pan American Games champion. He was also the reigning world-record holder (8,524 points), a feat he achieved at the USA-USSR joint track meet, held in Eugene, Oregon, in August 1975.

Although not yet a household name, Jenner was a favorite to wrest the Olympic decathlon title from Avilov’s grip.

Bruce Jenner competes in the men's decathlon at the Montreal 1976 Olympic Games.

But as the decathlon began in Montreal during the second week of the Games, Jenner’s prospects did not look good on paper. Sprinting was not his forte, and he tied for eighth in the 100-meter. And his time, 10.94 seconds, was almost a quarter-second off his personal best.

In the second event, the long jump, he finished sixth — again slightly off his personal best. Not until the shot put (the third event) did the standings begin to shake out. With the second longest throw and a personal best of 15.35 meters, Jenner, a left-hander, moved into second overall, 69 points behind Guido Kratschmer from West Germany and 42 points ahead of Avilov.

For the next four events, these three men jockeyed between first and third, with Jenner jumping back to second place overall with the longest discus throw.

At this point, he was only nine points behind Avilov and 15 ahead of Kratschmer.

In the pivotal eighth event — the pole vault — the drama heated up when Jenner missed his first try at 4.6 meters. Kratschmer cleared it on his first jump; Jenner then got it on his second attempt. Avilov wasn’t able to clear 4.55 meters, so he was out of it.

As the bar was raised to 4.7 meters, neither Jenner nor Kratschmer could clear it in their first two tries. But then Jenner sailed over cleanly on his third attempt.

Jenner told Sports Illustrated’s Frank Deford that he was thinking, “Can I make this?” as he ran toward the bar. Then he reminded himself, “You always make these things.”

Kratschmer did not make that height, and Jenner soared into the decathlon lead, 63 points ahead of Kratschmer and 76 ahead of Avilov.

Bruce Jenner celebrates winning gold in the men's decathlon at the Montreal 1976 Olympic Games.

His lead grew in the final two events, javelin and the 1,500-meter. When he sprinted the final 300 meters of the 1,500, almost running down winner Leonid Lytvynenko from the USSR, it was only to add points to a new world record — and to finish with flare. The Olympic gold medal was already his.

In setting a new world record of 8,618 points and becoming the Team USA’s ninth Olympic decathlon champion, Jenner ended up equaling or exceeding his personal bests in seven of the 10 events. He admitted to only feeling fear in the 110-meter hurdles (the sixth event). He had witnessed teammate Fred Dixon fall and finish last in a prior heat. Jenner knew that if he fell too, he could lose 100 points or more.

Even though he sat in third place after the first day of the decathlon and only won one of 10 events, Jenner’s confidence was high. Consistency was his strength, and he also knew that his best events were on Day 2. Before the decathlon started, he had told reporters, “If I am within 150 points of the leader after five events, I’ll run away with it.”

That’s exactly what he did. Between events, Jenner even wore a T-shirt over his USA singlet that read, “FEET, don’t fail me now.”

His feet — nor his legs, hands or arms — did not fail him. And in America’s bicentennial year, Jenner became a true red-white-and-blue hero. He was the perfect counterbalance to the other darling of the 1976 Olympic Games, Nadia Comaneci, from communist Romania, whose perfect 10s also captivated the world.

Now 65, Jenner told Diane Sawyer, “That was me, that is her,” when she showed him a photo of his 26-year-old self winning gold in Montreal.

With the veil lifted from his true self, Jenner is still a champion, this time for a cause.

A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered three Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.