August 17, 2004
John Woodruff's legs carried him to prominence 68 years ago during the Summer Olympic Games in Berlin. Legs the 89-year-old Fountain Hills resident had amputated 1 1/2 years ago due to poor circulation.
As a 21-year-old freshman at the University of Pittsburgh, Woodruff stunned a veteran field to claim the gold medal in the 800-meter run in 1936 during an Olympiad best remembered for being held in Adolf Hitler's Nazi Germany and Woodruff's teammate, Jesse Owens, racing to gold four times.
Sitting in his wheelchair or lying in bed in the independent living apartment at Fountain View Village he shares with his wife of 34 years, Rose, Woodruff admits he hasn't watched much of this year's Summer Games. Yet.
"I'll pay much more attention when the 100 (meter run), 200 and 800 are on," said Woodruff, in a room surrounded by photos and other mementoes of his day in the sun. Close by sits an engraved souvenir Olympic torch sent to him in 1996 by residents of his hometown of Connellsville, Pa.
One of the oldest living former Olympians, Woodruff no longer possesses his Olympic gold medal, which he initially donated to Connellsville High School. After a break-in at the school some years ago, he decided it would be safest at Pitt.
During the 800-meter final in Athens on Aug. 28, Rose Woodruff won't have to watch the couple's television set with her husband. She'll simply observe her husband immersed in his beloved race to know what's going on.
"He gets really excited," she said. "He talks about their ‘kicks’ and what they should be doing. You can see that he’s living the race inside him. It's like he's trying to run the race all over again."
Despite competing vicariously through today's performers Woodruff, a member of the United States Track and Field Hall of Fame, wouldn't trade his era for the current one.
"It's all professional now," said Woodruff, who set an American record in the 800 at 1:48.6 during a race on June 7, 1940, at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas. "Some of the athletes have used dope in order to enhance themselves. Our enhancement when I ran was from what God and Mother Nature gave us. Nothing else should be a factor. I'm glad I came along when I did."
Track was an accident for Woodruff. While practicing football as an offensive end in high school, workouts ended with a series of sprints and a lap around the track. An assistant coach, who was head track coach, saw Woodruff beat teammates every time. In the spring, the coach approached Woodruff about trying track. His mother, who made him quit football because practices were too long and he couldn't get home early enough to complete his chores, OK'd track because he wouldn't be as late.
"My parents didn't understand anything about athletics," he said. "Even school. They were interested in me attending school only to keep the truant officer away from them."
Woodruff tried to quit high school at 16 but was forced to return when he couldn't find a job. "We had a box factory and a glass factory back home," he said. "They discriminated against blacks. I had to go back to school. Had I not, the world wouldn't have known anything about me."
Woodruff's unorthodox strategy in the Olympic 800 is what gained him lasting recognition. He was boxed out by competitors during the finals and pulled off what turned out to be a tactical coup, slowing to a near stop and waiting until the field passed him, then moving into the outside third lane and sprinting from last to first.
"I actually stopped. I felt I had to do something drastic,” Woodruff said. “I couldn't break between the two leaders because I could have been disqualified on a foul. I figured the only way I could win was to run around them. I actually ran slow, for me. Had I not stopped and did what I did, I would have set the world record for then."
Woodruff basked in the notoriety while still in Berlin. "I went downtown after my race and people came around me and asked for my autograph," he said. "They were very friendly. Hitler had declared a moratorium and relaxed everything. We didn't feel like we were mistreated at all at any time by anyone. It was a great time."
The worst was to come when Woodruff, who enjoyed a long career working with disadvantaged children in the New York City area, lost his legs.
"It took quite a decision to amputate," he said. "Doctors said they might be able to save one, but it would eventually have to come off. I told them to do both. It's hard because they were both done above the knee. It was a very hurtful thing emotionally, especially because of what I was able to do with my legs. But, it had to be done."
Woodruff doesn't think about his legs much anymore. "He's a very strong, spiritual man," his wife said. But, Olympic thoughts still run through his head now and then.
"Olympic years bring out the memories," Woodruff said. "The Games bring it all back. Just like it happened yesterday."