By Anne Madarasz
This region has an over 80-year tradition of producing Olympic
champions and attracting world-class athletes to train and compete
in track and field. For a sport to flourish, there must be knowledgeable
coaches and the opportunity to compete-track and field has benefited
In 1916, the Pittsburgh Courier sponsored a track and field
competition at Schenley Park, helping to launch the sport in the
region. By 1920, Hunter Johnson was training Olympic athletes
Charles F. West, DeHart Hubbard, and Earl Johnson, and the University
of Pittsburgh had made a commitment to the sport that resulted
in a string of Olympians, beginning with Frank Shea.
Shea, an Irwin native, and Earl Johnson, who had raced for the
Edgar Thomson Steel Co. team, both competed at the Antwerp Olympic
games with Shea finishing fourth in the 400 meter race and also
fourth in the 4x400 meter relay. Johnson became the first man
with a local connection to medal in track and field, winning bronze
in the 10,000-meters at the 1924 Paris Olympics.
Connellsville's John Woodruff, then a Pitt freshman, stunned
the world in 1936, winning gold in the 800-meter race at the Berlin
Olympics. Woodruff continued to win, adding consecutive NCAA titles
each year at Pitt. The university also claims Olympian Herb Douglas,
who won bronze in 1948. Douglas, who attended Pitt on a football
scholarship, won three national AAU championships in the long
jump. At the London Olympics, Douglas took bronze with his jump
of 24'81/2", becoming the first Pittsburgher to win an Olympic
track and field medal.
A 1953 graduate of Schenley High School, Arnie Sowell attended
Pitt, winning the NCAA 800m title in 1954 and capturing the 1955
Pan American Games 800m title, tying the world record for the
1,000 meters. Sowell finished fifth in the 800 meters at the 1956
Melbourne Olympics, but won gold as part of the 1,600-meter relay
Pitt had to wait until the 1980s to taste Olympic gold again
when Roger Kingdom set an Olympic record with the time of 13.20
in the 110-meter hurdles. He won gold in Seoul four years later,
and in 1989, Kingdom set a new world record with the time of 12.92.
The region's track and field Olympians also includes two women.
Beaver Falls native Candy Young set state, national, and world
high school records, qualifying for the 1980 U.S. Olympic team,
but never competing as the U.S. boycotted the Moscow Games. Rochester's
Lauryn Williams became the youngest woman to win 100-meter medal
in 32 years when she captured the silver medal at the 2004 Athens
Olympics with a personal best time of 10.96 seconds. Williams
continues to compete on the world stage, adding to the region's
accumulation of precious medals.
Anne Madarasz is the Director of the
Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum, which features the story of
track and field Olympians.