ALLISON PARK, Pa. — As he sat down to address a group of first through fifth graders taking part in a youth running camp in a park outside Pittsburgh, Olympian Herbert Douglas Jr. posed a question to them.
“How many of you would like to make the Olympic team?” he said.
Twenty-five hands shot in the air.
“All of you?” he asked. “Well, all right.”
At 95 years old, Douglas is the oldest living African-American Olympic medalist, having won bronze in the long jump in London in 1948. He was joined by 1972 Olympic canoeist Wick Walker to speak to young runners taking part in a camp hosted by P3R, the organization that produces the annual Pittsburgh Marathon, to help celebrate Olympic Day.
This was also the first time that Douglas, who grew up in Pittsburgh, participated in Olympic Day. But it certainly was not the first time he’s shared his knowledge with a younger generation.
“It’s a must that we pass down the richness of our experiences to young people because that ends up in growth and gives them my thoughts and views that people are people,” Douglas said. “Their contribution and what they learn as they progress, they have to pass it down to the next generation. That’s my thinking.”
|Herbert Douglas Jr. and Wick Walker pose with students and the Olympic Day flag on June 28, 2017 in Allison Park, Pa.|
Douglas talked about running back and forth to the store to buy things for his mother when he was a child, saying that’s how he got to be so fast. He talked about meeting Jesse Owens at the age of 14, the same year the Olympic legend won four gold medals at Olympic Games Berlin 1936.
“When I met him I said, ‘Mr. Owens, I run, too,’ and I told him what I did in the 100 (meters) and the long jump,” Douglas said. “He said, ‘You did better than I did,’ but I knew he was lying through his teeth because I checked it out. But he gave me the inspiration.”
After that, Douglas said, he had his heart set on going to the Olympic Games, and used to pray every night that God would help him do it.
Walker, an author and pioneer in the world of whitewater paddling and expeditions, spoke to the children about how what they learn at running camp these next few weeks will apply to other sports and life in general.
He also told them how he tried swimming, football and wrestling, but couldn’t imagine what a big part of his life sports would become until he discovered canoeing and the magic of being on the water.
“Everyone thinks going into it that the Olympics is the ultimate goal, it’s the end-all be-all, but for me it was more a building block that gave me confidence for the rest of my life to do other things and keep going,” said Walker, who now lives on a farm in Southwestern Pennsylvania. “It wasn’t, ‘Oh, you got to the Olympics, that’s the end of it.’ It wasn’t the end of my sporting life, either. It was just the beginning. It gave me the confidence to keep doing the activities that I’m still doing today.”
The children had questions for the Olympians — can you compete in basketball and running? Do people from all over the world compete in the Olympics? — and Douglas had some questions for them as well.
“What are you going to do to get to the Olympics?” he asked.
Work hard, one said. Sprint. Practice.
“Do you think you could beat me?”
A resounding no was the answer.
“Yeah, yeah you could beat me,” he said, chuckling. “I can hardly walk now.”
Then he asked who is the fastest runner in the world right now, and a sea of hands shot in the air to answer Usain Bolt.
“Right. That’s right,” Douglas said. “Who came in second to him?”
“See there? See what it means to be No. 1?” he said. “You remember No. 1. Strive to be No. 1 in your classes, strive to be No. 1 in your running and, the most important thing, is strive to help others. You have to try to learn as much as you can and then pass it down when you get older.”