Steeplechase competitor stunned world at 1952 Olympic Games
August 4, 2012 4:00 AM
Horace Ashenfelter was the surprise winner at the Helsinki Olympic Games in 1952.
By Mark Dent Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
GLEN RIDGE, N.J. -- To train for the gold medal he was never supposed to win, Horace Ashenfelter carved a hunk of wood into the precise height and length of an Olympic steeplechase hurdle and placed it in nearby Carteret Park. He leapt over the obstacle, teaching himself a sport foreign not just to the world at large, but to the track community as well.
At night, he hid his creation in the bushes. He hoped no one would steal it.
The year was 1952. A number of coincidences, including a chance meeting at a Penn State golf course and advice from a man who drank too much alcohol, had brought him to this point.
Horace Ashenfelter III wanted to become the world's best in the 3,000-meter steeplechase, an event he had run fewer than 10 times in his life. He wanted to beat a record-holding Russian at the Helsinki Olympic Games.
Soviet athletes skirted amateur rules, training like professional athletes under the auspices of a country that had an organized ministry of sport. The 1952 Games were the Soviet Union's first. The communist regime demanded a good showing against the capitalist West.
Ashenfelter, a full-time FBI agent, husband and father of two children with a third on the way, wanted to beat a favored man -- pressured by his country to make ideological history -- by training an hour a day, after supper, at a park a few blocks from his house.
An unexpected competitor
Back from the Air Force, on the G.I. Bill at Penn State in 1946, Ashenfelter needed a hobby to fill the time when he wasn't studying for his physical education degree. His wife, Lillian, had stayed home in Collegeville, Pa. What was a 20-something man to do?
Ashenfelter drank, but not very much. Bars were not an option. He could box, a popular pastime for men in Rec Hall, but he had learned after his fourth match that opponents who could actually hit gave him trouble, not to mention a few bruises. So he took up running.
Ashenfelter jogged along the golf course near his Park Avenue home. He loved running, and had since his days on the southern Air Force bases.
One day, the Penn State cross-country team ran by. A runner named Curt Stone told him he should join, that he only needed to talk to the man in the necktie, coach Chick Werner.
"Can you run two miles?" Werner asked.
Ashenfelter said he could. He was on the team. He had only run one competitive race before in his life at a May Day event his senior year of high school, where he finished second in the mile. He may have run a 5:30. For his first indoor meet, he ran a 4:16.
In the next three years, Ashenfelter, along with Stone, won numerous track and cross-country races. He won the NCAA championship for the two mile his senior year.
He mainly remembered the race he lost. Ashenfelter should have made the 1948 Olympic team in the 10,000 meters, but he crumbled in the Chicago heat on the last few laps.
The trip wasn't without reward. He acquired a newfound motivation to make the Olympics. He just hadn't figured out the best way to approach his dream.
The American dream
Like most college graduates of his time, Ashenfelter settled into the American dream. He had a wife, children, a pleasant suburban house in New Jersey and a job. He worked as an agent for the FBI.
The difference was that he also ran for the New York Athletic Club. Along with Stone; his brother, Bill Ashenfelter; and Fred Wilt, they formed the best team in the country. One time, for fun, he and Stone ran a 5,000-meter workout at a local park. They finished together, tying the American record.
But the United States already had enough talented competitors in the 5,000 and 10,000. Someone told Ashenfelter about the 3,000-meter steeplechase. He was a coach, but Ashenfelter no longer remembers the name or the exact details, only that the eccentric man drank often.
"He was in his chips a good part of the time, but he was bright," Ashenfelter said. "He said, 'Did you ever think of the steeplechase'? I said, 'What's the steeplechase?' "
Track's version of the steeplechase had existed since the 19th century, but the NCAA did not feature the event, which required runners to jump over five hurdles, one containing a water trap, spread throughout the track on each lap.
Ashenfelter taught himself the steeplechase. Even if he didn't like to train on his own, he didn't know anyone who could counsel him on how to prepare for the event. In 1951, he won the AAU national title. In '52, he ran an American record time of 9:06.4 at the Olympic Trials, qualifying for the Helsinki Olympics.
The celebration might have started then, if not for a Russian named Vladimir Kazantsev. Kazantsev owned the steeplechase world record of 8:48.6. He trained for Dinamo, a "sports society" established in 1923, operated by the state.
A Soviet athlete of the '40s, according to James Riordan's Sport In Soviet Society, was often given a sinecure for his sports society or the designation of student "so that he can devote much time to sport."
Unlike his competition, Ashenfelter didn't even have a coach. He limited his daily workout to one hour, often at night. He didn't keep track of his mileage. And he never wore a watch when he trained.
As her husband warms up below, Lillian sits in Helsinki's Olympic Stadium between Bert and Cordner Nelson, two of track and field's most influential members. They publish Track and Field News and know statistics and numbers like no one else.
They handed her a piece of paper with a time written on it: 8:45. Ashenfelter needs to run that time to win.
Not only would this guarantee a gold, but it also would break a world record. Ashenfelter had told his wife at dinner the night before that he had won his preliminary race, but the Russian loomed in the final.
The starter's pistol fires. Ashenfelter takes the lead after about 1,000 meters. Kazantsev hangs on his shoulder, never passing him.
He wears the Soviet red. He's bigger, a little stronger. Ashenfelter, a thick swath of dark hair atop his head and a white U.S. singlet on his chest, is slighter but in the best shape of his life.
He was an unknowing participant in the ideological battle. The Soviet Union, wanting to prove its supremacy, asked the IOC to keep track of team scores. Its athletes stayed in a dwelling several miles from the Olympic Village, away from the capitalist western nations.
The 3,000-meter steeplechase characterized the clash of cultures more than any other event at the 1952 Games. It pitted an American, from the country designated as a superpower, and a Russian, from the country trying to emerge, against each other. The Russian was closing on his heels, hoping to surpass the leader. Ashenfelter didn't care about the symbolism. He wanted to win because it was a race, the biggest race of his life.
He tries to tire out Kazantsev by forcing him outside on the turns. It's his best strategy, but he knows the Russian has a better finishing kick.
At the bell lap, Kazantsev bolts in front. Above, Lillian closes her eyes. She won't open them until the spectators surrounding her begin shouting remarks of disbelief.
She misses the moment that changes everything. She misses the water trap. This hurdle comes shortly after Kazantsev takes the lead, and a grainy video clip proves this is all real.
Kazantsev leaps atop the hurdle but lands awkwardly and stumbles at the edge of the water. Ashenfelter pushes off with his left leg, the same way he did all those evenings in the park, and lands perfectly.
He runs like fire. Kazantsev wilts and loses by 30 yards. When Ashenfelter crosses the tape, the clock reads 8:45.4, a world record.
I won, he thinks. I won.
A few minutes later, Ashenfelter receives a bouquet of flowers from a Finnish woman at the finish line. He crawls up the stairs, gives the flowers to Lillian and hugs her.
After the gold
Ashenfelter, now 89, won a silver medal in the 1955 Pan-American games along with many more AAU titles. But the Olympics had been a goal, not an obsession.
He worked with the FBI for a few more years then went into the precious metals business. He and Lillian raised their family. They have four children, 12 grandchildren and one great granddaughter.
Ashenfelter now spends several hours each week tending a community rose garden. He plays golf on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
He and Lillian still travel to Penn State, where the indoor track bears his name, for a family tailgate at most home football games.
And Ashenfelter runs. Trots, as he calls it. Though health issues have prevented him from running as much as he would like, he tries to run two or three times a week to Carteret Park, the place where he once ran in the dark, chasing his dream.
"From here," he said, lounging on his back porch with a glass of iced tea, "I have a downhill start. I have a half-mile before I even have to breathe hard."
The men's 3,000-meter steeplechase final will be run on Sunday in London. The preliminaries for the women's 3,000-meter steeplechase will be run Saturday and the finals on Monday. Bridget Franek, who graduated from Penn State in 2010, is among the women competitors. She finished with the second-best time at the U.S. Olympic Trials.