Robert Eugene Richards is the only man to win two Olympic gold medals in the pole vault.
A versatile athlete, Richards made three U.S. Olympic teams in pole vault. In 1956, he made the American team in both pole vault and decathlon. Richards was the dominant pole vaulter of his time, winning three Olympic medals and 20 AAU titles [nine in outdoor pole vault, eight in indoor pole vault, and three in decathlon]. The first athlete to clear 15 feet was Cornelius “Dutch” Warmerman, who went 15’, 7 ¾ inches to set a world record in 1942. Warmerman vaulted 15 feet or higher 43 times. Richards did it over 130 times, more than all other international athletes. The superbly-conditioned Richards competed at the international level for decades before becoming an original Masters athlete later in his career. After retiring from track, he actively promoted physical fitness, cycling over 3,000 miles from Los Angeles to New York to raise health awareness. Richards is the first athlete to appear on the front of a Wheaties box, was the first Wheaties spokesman—making “Breakfast of Champions” a household phrase–and helped establish the Wheaties Sports Foundation, which encouraged participation in Olympic sports.
Born in Champaign, Illinois, on this date in 1926, Richards was the third of five children born to a telephone lineman and homemaker. An excellent athlete, he was a successful tumbler and diver as a boy. In seventh grade, he tried the pole vault and cleared 6’-9”. “I fell in love with the thing,” recalled Richards years later. “It was love at first sight.” At Champaign High School, Richards earned three letters quarterbacking the football team. He also vaulted 12 feet and was a three-time letterman in track. When his family moved to Seattle the summer before his senior year of high school, Richards stayed in Champaign, where he moved in with a family that introduced him to the ministry. He attended Bridgewater College in Virginia, where he was all-conference in basketball, competed in the pole vault at the 1945 Penn Relays, and became an ordained minister. After two years at Bridgewater, Richards accepted a track scholarship to the University of Illinois and returned to Champaign in summer 1945.
After vaulting 13’-8”, Richards finished in a six-way tie for the 1947 NCAA title. Following graduation later that year, he remained at Illinois, taught sociology, and earned a Master’s degree. He qualified for the 1948 U.S. Olympic team, where he won a bronze in pole vault at the London Games. In January 1951, he became the second man to clear 15 feet in the pole vault. The following month, he won a gold medal at the Pan Am Games. At the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, The “Vaulting Vicar” won a gold medal while setting a new Olympic record. In the Pan Am Games three years later, he took gold in pole vault and a silver medal in decathlon, setting the stage for the 1956 Olympics.
Richards was the best pole vaulter in the world coming into the 1956 Melbourne Games. On November 26, and after clearing 14’-11 ½” in his second attempt in the finals, he became the only pole vaulter in history to successfully defend his Olympic title. Three days later, he entered the decathlon competition. On the first day of the two-day decathlon event, Richards fell behind Americans Milt Campbell [Daily Dose, 1/6/16] and Rafer Johnson. On Day Two, Richards won the pole vault before an injury prevented him from completing the decathlon, which Campbell won over the heavily-favored Johnson.
Bob Richards is a remarkable human being. In his day, he was considered the greatest pole vaulter in history. Richards’ exploits in track and field earned him three Olympic medals, a record, and 20 national titles. He won the 1951 Sullivan Award [Daily Dose, 11/18/16] as America’s top amateur athlete and was a torch bearer at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. Richards was Goodwill Ambassador to China in 1954–the same year he served on the President’s Council for Youth Fitness–and was named one of Five Outstanding Young Men in America in 1957. He authored Heart of a Champion, which became a national bestseller and fitness bible. Reverend Robert covered track for all three major television networks, broadcasting the Summer Games in 1960, 1964 and 1976. One of the finest motivational speakers in history, Richards has delivered over 12,000 talks in his lifetime. He was an inspiration to the late Jim Valvano, who coached N.C. State to the 1983 national basketball title ten years before receiving the Arthur Ashe Courage Award.
Richards is a member of the 100 Golden Olympians team, an honor he received in 1996 as one of America’s greatest gold medal champions, and is a charter member of the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame. In 1984, he ran for President of the United States, where he and running mate, Maureen Salaman lost to Ronald Reagan and George Bush. In 2000, the Vaulting Vicar received the Order of Lincoln, joining past recipients that include Ronald Reagan, Paul Harvey, and Walter Payton [Daily Dose, 10/7/15] for the highest award given by his home state of Illinois. The first athlete ever to grace the front of a Wheaties box is a member of the National Fitness, New York Sports, Illinois, Madison Square Garden, U.S. National Track and Helms halls of fame.
Robert Eugene Richards is not even the best pole vaulter in his family. Three of his sons have vaulted higher than their father. Bob Jr. cleared 17’-6” in 1973. Tom won a CIF California state pole vault championship and, in 1985, Brandon set a national high school record that stood for 14 years. In 1990, Brandon vaulted 18’- 4 ½” to set the Richards family record, which still stands.