Days prior to his historic gold medal run in the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo, Bob Schul received a message from the residents of West Milton. Thousands signed a telegram in support of their hometown hero.
Fifty years — and one gold medal later — Schul has never forgotten that gesture.
For the past seven years Schul has thanked the town in a fitting way: One autograph at a time at the cross country meet in his honor, the Bob Schul Invitational.
On a hot and humid Saturday morning, Schul stood for nearly five hours signing shirts, shoes, meet ribbons, medals, trophies and his book for many of the 1,250 runners at one of the biggest meets in Ohio. He’s likely signed more than 5,000 autographs since time commitments eased allowing him to return to the meet in 2008.
“It’s a way to give back. When I ran I received a telegram from the people of West Milton who signed it and it was 30 pages long,” Schul said. “Thousands of people signed that. That was meaningful to me. Miami University did the same thing. When you get that prior to the race, you know it’s not just for you. It’s for everybody. It’s just a wonderful feeling.”
Meet and greet
As Schul posed for a photo with a Versailles boy, he asked how fast the student ran.
“Not as fast as you,” he replied, drawing a bigger smile and a laugh from Schul.
As he signed a medal for an Oakwood girl, he told her she could sell that autograph for $10 in the United States. He told her take it to Europe and she could sell it for $200.
“Wow, really?” she said in disbelief.
“He’s very nice,” said Milton-Union sophomore Kira Rohr. “It’s kind of funny to see all the people like, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s Bob Schul.’ We’re just like yeah that’s Bob. He came from here.”
Schul, who turns 77 on Sept. 28, always did put on a great show at the track. His own cross country career started with West Milton’s inaugural team in 1951. He finished seventh in the state as a senior in 1955, having no idea at the time how far the sport would eventually take him.
He was a walk-on with George Rider’s Miami University team but quickly established himself with the school record in the mile as a sophomore (4:12.1). He joined the Air Force in 1959 and trained under Max Truex, who later introduced Schul to legendary Hungarian coach Mihaly Igloi. Igloi’s innovative training techniques helped Schul gain international success with the legendary Los Angeles Track Club, including a 5,000-meter bronze medal at the 1963 Pan American Games.
Schul returned to Miami that fall and — despite having to train in a harsh Ohio winter — continued his course for Japan by winning the United States three-mile indoor championship.
Both Sports Illustrated and a panel of writers from Track and Field News picked him to win the 5,000 in Tokyo on Oct. 18. He’s the only American runner ever to be the favorite in a distance event.
Schul — confident but not cocky from an undefeated 1964 season from one mile to 5,000 meters — knew he would win. With half a lap left he momentarily had his doubts.
Australian Ron Clarke fell off the pace, leaving France’s Michel Jazy in front on the bell lap. Schul, waiting patiently in fifth, matched Jazy’s sprint and increased his lead on New Zealand’s Bill Bailley. Schul breezed past fellow American Bill Dellinger and Russia’s Nikolay Dutov on the backstretch. He caught West Germany’s Harold Norpoth in the final turn for second.
The only thing between Schul and history was Jazy and a frantic sprint to the finish. Schul, known for his legendary kick, ran down Jazy with 50 meters left to win in 13:48.8. Jazy was also passed by Norpoth (silver) and Dellinger (bronze) in a photo finish at the line.
“Down the back straight I wasn’t catching Jazy. He had good speed,” Schul said. “It wasn’t until I got passed Norpoth after the turn. Then I could see Jazy was tightening up. I thought to myself, ‘I can get him now.’ He just fell apart. It’s hard to understand.”
In the athletic entrance at Milton-Union High School is a ceiling to (almost) floor banner celebrating Schul’s accomplishments. A Plexiglas case will soon join it. Schul is donating his Olympic uniform and shoes for display.
That’s not the only thing on display at Milton-Union, thanks to Schul. The popular cross country course that starts in a pasture and weaves through the woods and the Bulldogs’ recently refurbished all-weather track can be attributed to Schul as well.
“I don’t think we’d be lucky to have the facilities, and the tradition obviously, without Bob,” cross country coach Mike Meredith said. “Having Bob back at the meet is awesome to be able to put on a quality event. To be able to let some young kid experience meeting a gold medalist is very satisfying for him. He’d do it without any recognition.”
Schul’s gold medal dreams didn’t start until he was a sophomore at Miami. Teammates took turns sharing their goals one night. League championships and personal bests were tossed around. Schul was the last to go.
“It came to me and I said, ‘I’d like to make the Olympic team one day.’ Everyone laughed,” Schul said. “I don’t blame them for that. To them it was just ridiculous.”
As a youngster, even Schul couldn’t have imagined beating the world’s best. He almost died twice as a baby from severe asthma. Growing up on the family farm on Iddings Road didn’t help his condition. Sometimes he would wear his uncle’s World War I gas mask working in the fields.
Often, when an attack would happen, Schul would force himself to lay still and keep calm to conserve his oxygen. That mental toughness served him well in his racing.
“In some of those instances I thought I was going to die,” said Schul. “It’s like you’re trying to breathe through a straw. You want to fight. You want to roll around but you can’t because that uses oxygen. You have to force yourself to lay still and breathe as deep as you can. If there’s a good thing that came out of my running, that was probably it.”
Comeback cut short
Schul’s international running career came to an end in 1965. Knee pain, other ailments and his asthma left Schul struggling. He made an attempt at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico but an asthma attack limited him to fifth in the trials.
Schul started Wright State University’s cross country program in the early 1970s. He taught in the Dayton City School system, coached cross country programs at Brookville, Centerville and Wayne, ran the Bob Schul Racing team and owned a shoe store in Troy.
His best advice for runners?
“I always tell my runners you have to have some ego. It doesn’t mean you have to shout from the rooftops,” Schul said. “When you go into a race you’ve got to know you can win this thing. There’s nothing wrong with that. I didn’t go into a race looking at everybody and saying, ‘Well, I’ll see you at they finish line.’ I never thought about that. To me it’d be demeaning. But when I went into a race in 1964, after the indoor season, I’d knew I’d be tough to beat.”
Thank you for reading the Dayton Daily News and for supporting local journalism. Subscribers: log in for access to your daily ePaper and premium newsletters.
Thank you for supporting in-depth local journalism with your subscription to the Dayton Daily News. Get more news when you want it with email newsletters just for subscribers. Sign up here.