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Meet Bob Schul, Team USA’s Only 5,000-meter Olympic Champion In History

By Karen Rosen | June 25, 2019, 12:01 a.m. (ET)


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Bob Schul wasn’t quite ready for a trip down memory lane.

“Let me put my spikes on first,” he said.

The 81-year-old Schul was joking, but preparation has always been his stock in trade.

On a wet track in Tokyo on Oct. 18, 1964, Schul became the first – and still the only – Team USA runner to win the 5,000-meter at the Olympic Games.

“What comes to mind is I was ready,” he said. “My workouts were fantastic. Nobody else did the workouts I did.”

That April, Schul went to the track at Miami University in Ohio every Sunday and ran 20 – yes 20 – 400-meter repeats with a target of 60 seconds each. 

“I might have run a tenth or two-tenths faster or slower, but basically I was right on,” said Schul. “Since I could do that, I felt very sure of myself.”

He was training on his own, returning to college after a stint in the Air Force where he trained on weekends in California with legendary Hungarian coach Mihaly Igloi. Schul slept on a friend’s couch before returning to his base.

He eventually realized he was working harder than his rivals. “For a while I didn’t know what other people were doing,” Schul said. “Other guys liked to brag. I never told anybody.”

Still, he was the gold-medal favorite, having run the fastest time in the world that year at the distance. Schul was the American record holder at 5,000 meters and the world record holder at 2 miles.

He would like to return to the scene of his greatest triumph next year for the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020, though he says the cost may be prohibitively steep.

In the meantime, Schul can relive the race on YouTube. There is footage of only the last three laps of the 12 ½-lap event, but that’s enough. It’s where the real racing took place after a painfully slow start, with Ron Clarke of Australia securing the early lead. Clarke was overtaken by Michel Jazy of France with about 1,000 meters to go.

Bill Dellinger of the United States then sprinted to the front before Jazy regained the lead.

On the video, Schul barely fits on the screen in sixth place. He had only worked his way up to fifth at the bell with Jazy still leading the pack.

“When we were in the last lap, coming around the turn, everybody was still there – there were probably 10 people,” Schul said. “I got boxed in. I couldn’t get out, so I kept moving to the right a little bit, every step I took, and I forced the guys to go wider.”

Jazy had about a 10-meter advantage, followed by Harald Norpoth of Germany and Schul.

“Finally, I was free, but Jazy was way out there,” Schul said.

But not for long.

“His great luxury is he had a ferocious kick,” said Tim Chapman, who calls himself “one of Bob’s first coaching projects in 1968” and hopes to accompany him to Tokyo next year. “The thing about the race that was really unique was it was in an absolute downpour of rain, and that track had turned into a mud bath. Norpoth’s shirt is in Cologne in a German Hall of Fame and it is covered with mud. Bob ran almost 53 seconds for his last lap to win the race, which would win any Olympics.”

Schul’s last 300 meters was clocked in 38 seconds, the same as Peter Snell of New Zealand in winning the 1,500 on a dry track.

Jazy turned around to look once or twice, despairing at seeing Schul gaining on him. On the curve, Schul saw Jazy’s shoulders tighten and he knew he had him.

Schul took the lead with about 50 meters to go, finishing with a time of 13 minutes, 48.8 seconds. Norpoth came in second in 13:49.6 and Dellinger edged Jazy at the line for the bronze medal, giving Team USA two podium finishes. Dellinger and Jazy both posted a time of 13:49.8 and it took a while to sort it out. Kip Keino of Kenya, who would go on to greatness in 1968 with two medals in Mexico City, was fifth (13:50.4).

However, over the years Schul’s victory has been overshadowed by another come-from-behind win. Four days earlier, Billy Mills came out of nowhere to shock the world in the 10,000-meter. He also won with a kick and was the first – and still only – American to win the 10,000. 

Having never previously broken 29 minutes, Mills finished with an Olympic record time of 28:24.4. A Japanese official asked him, “Who are you?”

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Bob Schul (center) competes in the men's 5,000-meter at the Olympic Games Tokyo 1964 in Tokyo.


“He hadn’t won a race all year,” said Schul who had beaten Mills in their head-to-head encounters. “I never thought of him as a person who could win. So when he won, nobody expected that, but what happened was he watched me train and started doing the same thing.”

Schul, who won both U.S. Olympic Team Trials races in 1964 despite problems with hay fever and asthma, considered attempting the 5K/10K double in Tokyo.

“I’ve often thought what would have happened if I had run the 10K,” he said. “It was an easy event. But the problem was the 10K came first, so I decided not to do it.”

Schul aspires to join Mills in the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Hall of Fame, which will induct its first new class since 2012 later this year.

Schul wrote a book about his experiences, “In the Long Run” with Laura Rentz Krause, and Chapman said he and Schul have gone over “every nuance” of his winning race.

Schul finished 1964 undefeated at 5,000 and 3 miles, but the long season which began indoors and continued in Australia after the Olympic Games took a toll.

After he took a three- or four-day break at the family farm In Ohio, Schul said he thought, “I better get back at it.”

He went to the road to put on his track shoes. “I took a step and the pain in my left knee was unbelievable,” he said.

Schul, who now lives in Fairborn, Ohio, said his knee didn’t hurt when he walked. He tried to run again. “Bam, it came right back.”

After a painful 800 meters, Schul said, “I walked home, back to the farm and that was it.”

Chapman said arthroscopic surgery would have fixed Schul’s problem, but he didn’t have that option in 1965.

Schul couldn’t train for four months. He stayed in shape by treading water using only his legs and riding a stationary bicycle.

In his first meet back, Schul pulled a calf muscle during his sprint and jogged in.

His next race came at the 1965 national championships in San Diego. Schul won the 5,000-meter title with a new American record.

“When they said the time,” Schul said, “I thought to myself, ‘An American record with a bad leg. If I get this thing fixed, I’ll be back doing some good races again.’”

But by 1968, his knee problem had returned, hampering his ability to sprint. In the two Olympic trials races that year, Schul was seventh in the first race and sixth in the second. 

“It just wasn’t going to happen,” he said.

Schul did become a top masters runner and coached cross-country and track at Wright State University in Dayton from 1996 to 2007. 

He still trains people who ask for his help, but hung up his spikes at age 72. 

Now Schul is trying to get back in running shape.

After riding a stationary bike during the winter, he was back on the track earlier this month with 100-meter repeats with a 20-meter walk in between.

“I decided, first time out on the track, don’t do too much,” he said. “The next day I was sore. My legs were sore.”

In the long run, it’s not Schul’s nature to take it easy.