It was a warm morning in early June, the two friends had not seen each other in some time, and it turned out to be a memorable day.
Two Olympic gold medalists, visiting and reminiscing about the people and the games they attended some 56 years earlier in Helsinki, Finland.
Bob Richards won the gold medal in the pole vault that year and again in 1956 at Melbourne, Australia. Dean Smith won his in the 400-meter relay and was just nosed out – literally – for a medal in the 100-meter.
“Bob Richards was my hero when I was 19 years old,” Smith says. “He revolutionized this pole vaulting stuff.”
“I remember going over in the plane,” recalls Richards. “We went to the governor’s office. Dean was standing next to me. Dean said, let Bob speak – he’s the oldest of us.”
The two remember staying in the Olympic village where most of the athletes boarded. But not the Russians or the eastern block athletes.
“Fred Wilt, Perry O’Brian and I went to the Russian Olympic village,” Smith remarks, adding that, first, they weren’t supposed to, and second, they were somewhat fearful they would be kidnapped and hauled off someplace behind the Iron Curtain – but it didn’t matter, they went anyway.
“The Russian vaulters came to watch us,” Richards adds. “When I finally went over the cross bar these Russians ran out, picked me up and bear hugged me. That picture went all over Russia, but never in the U.S.”
So what does it take to become an Olympian, to compete with the best in the world and win?
“When I was 15, I found God,” Richards recalls. “That changed my life.
“A guy invested $5 in my life – he bought me a membership in the YMCA. I was around the right kind of people.”
Richards says when he was 15 he was 5 feet tall and weighed 90 pounds.
“I was so small, so slow, I never dreamed of going to the Olympics,” he says. “I was the last one on the totem pole – I had a dream.”
That dream was to play football.
“The best decision I ever made was to leave football and going to track,” explains Richards. “Track and field has really been good to me.”
“I didn’t have the size to get into football,” adds Smith. “I wanted to be a world champion cowboy. When I quit school my grandmother moved me back to Graham (Texas). It did teach me – there’s no short cuts, you have to work for it.
“I had the Lord and my grandmother to help me out,” Smith remarks.
“Did you ever dream of winning the Olympics?” Richards asks him.
The two were among the earliest track competitors to use a weight-training program.
“In ’52, Bob and I had a weight program,” Smith says.
“I was one of the few guys that weight lifted,” remarks Richards. “It was unheard of for track people.”
But they both agree – it takes a dream, determination and hard work.
“I went to the New York Hall of Fame,” says Richards, explaining that it contains the names of some of the greatest sports figures in the world – Lou Gehrig, Babe Ruth, Willie Shewmake.
“I was sitting next to Frank Giffard. I said, ‘My God, Frank, I don’t belong in this group!’”
“‘Son,’ he said, ‘you dream a dream. Start letting that dream work on your body. Your body expands to meet your dream.’”
Soon, the names of those with whom they competed rolled across the large room that serves as Richards’ living room, echoing in the vaulted ceiling rafters from another era. Fred Wilt, long-distance runner with the FBI; Perry O’Brian ’52-’56 gold medalist in the shot put; Harrison Dillard, gold medalist in the high hurdles; coaches Clyde Littlefield of the University of Texas; Larry Snyder, who coached Jesse Owens; and head coach Brutus Hamilton, from the University of California. Hamilton is credited to leading the ’52 U.S. Olympic team to 14 gold medals.
After their wins at Helsinki, the two entered successful careers, Richards as a public speaker, Smith as an actor.
“I use sports as the greatest analysis of life,” Richards says. “These stories out of the Olympics should be in the Bible. They illustrate life better than Sampson.
“Hair just weighs you down,” he adds with a chuckle.
“All of my stories made hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars,” he adds.
“Who introduced me to the (John) Wayne family was Bob Mathias,” Smith says. “I met them in 1958. I know all of his grandkids and all of his kids.”
Smith appeared in a number of John Wayne’s westerns, including “The Alamo,” Rio Bravo,” “Big Jake,” Rio Lobo,” “McClintock,” “Eldorado” and others. The Internet Movie Data Base lists 79 separate television shows and movies in which he appeared.
“I had great heros, not only in the sports world, but also in the movie world,” he adds.
“At this very, very moment – 76 – it’s like God put his hand on my shoulder.
“It will always be there for us,” he explains of his Olympic accomplishments. “No matter how big the story, as long as you set foot in that moment of history, you’ll always be there. The Olympic games are one of the greatest events in the world.”
“Peace through sports,” adds Richards. “There’s nothing like it in the world.”
For the future, Richards’ book, Heart of a Champion, written in 1957, is being republished.
“All it is is Olympic stories,” he says.
As for Smith, he has been trying for the last few years to get his story written. Texas writer Mike Cox has agreed to write his biography.
Smith, 76, raises longhorns and has horses at his ranch in Stephens County (Texas). He spends a lot of his time going to fund-raising events. He started the Dean Smith Celebrity Rodeo in 2002 to raise money for cancer research at the John Wayne Cancer Institute. In 2004, he was diagnosed with the disease and undergoes monthly treatments.
“I must have 15 friends with cancer and they’re worse off than I am,” he says. “I know how lucky I am because of how sick I am.”
Richards manages a 4,000-plus acre ranch in southern Palo Pinto County. He cares for his large herd of horses and works on anything he can find – cars to bicycles to heavy equipment.
“I wish I had 56 more years,” Richards says. “When I die, don’t feel sorry for me – I’ve had a great ride.”