Preview Mode Links will not work in preview mode

Hoosier History Live

Aug 14, 2020

The pageantry, competition and drama of the Tokyo Summer Olympics was supposed to be underway at this point, concluding with a closing ceremony on Aug. 9. Instead, the games have been postponed until July 23-Aug. 8 2021 due to the Covid-19 pandemic - and some analysts have speculated they may not even happen then.

Regardless, Hoosier History Live will spotlight Olympians with connections to Indiana who competed in an array of sports for more than 100 years. Rather than focusing on superstars such as Mark Spitz, the swimmer who captured a then-record seven gold medals at the 1972 Munich Olympics, or basketball sensation Larry Bird and others on the "Dream Team" of the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, we will explore Olympians whose lives, before or after the games in which they competed, involved compelling - and sometimes little-known - personal stories.

Among the stories of Hoosier-connected Olympic athletes we'll explore: 

  • A gold medalist in the long jump who grew up in poverty and recently retired, at age 89, from a career as a dentist at Logansport State Hospital.
  • The first African-American gold medalist in the decathlon who, after the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, became a pro football player - and, according to several accounts, was fired for marrying a white woman.
  • Hoosier athletes who followed up their Olympics experiences by becoming FBI agents and, in at least one case, a Navy SEAL.

Our guide as we make our way through these inspiring stories of athletic excellence will be Indianapolis Star sportswriter David Woods, who has covered every Summer Olympics since the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. (Even before that, he began interviewing Olympians in 1972 and, as a freelancer, wrote about the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics). David is the author of a new book, Indiana University Olympians (IU Press), which features profiles of 49 diverse athletes.

Book cover: Indiana University OlympiansAmong them is Dr. Greg Bell, the newly retired octogenarian dentist, who excelled in the long jump at the 1956 Olympics. As the seventh of nine children in an African-American family, he lived in a chicken house on a truck farm near Terre Haute for his first 12 years. For many of those years, the chicken house had no electricity, according to David's book. When his principal at the former Garfield High School suggested he try broad jumping (as the event, which Greg Bell never had heard of, was called then), he immediately set a school record.

Following his triumph at the Olympics in the long jump and two NCAA championships (he never lost a collegiate competition while at IU, David notes), Greg Bell attended the IU School of Dentistry. He paid his way through dental school by working on a farm near Indianapolis.

Other athletes at the 1956 Olympics included Milt Campbell (1933-2012), who was born in New Jersey but attended IU in the 1950s. He became the first African-American gold medalist in the decathlon but suffered from "a lack of recognition during much of his lifetime," David writes. Excelling in swimming, wrestling, judo and other sports, Milt Campbell played football at IU for two years. In 1957, he was chosen by the Cleveland Browns in the NFL draft, but lasted only one season.

Although Don Lash set world records before and after the 1936 Berlin Olympics, he did not win a medal at the games. Courtesy Indiana University Athletic Department."He was cut apparently because of his off-season marriage to a white woman," according to Indiana University Olympians. David's book points out that Campbell is the only athlete to have been inducted into both the National Track and Field Hall Fame and the International Swimming Hall of Fame.

Like Milt Campbell, diver Lesley Bush grew up in New Jersey but attended IU. She was just 16 years old, new to the sport of diving, and, according to David Woods, "not on any list of Olympic hopefuls" when she captured a gold medal at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. IU's former diving coach, Hobie Billingsley, called Lesley Bush's victory the greatest upset in the history of competitive diving.

Billingsley's colleague at IU, legendary swimming coach James "Doc" Counsilman, built a dynasty of Olympians during the 1960s and '70s that included Indianapolis native Mike Troy, a gold medalist at the 1960 Rome Olympics. Eventually he became a Navy SEAL and was awarded a Silver Star for heroism during the Vietnam War. Mike Troy died last August at age 78.

Decades earlier, two native Hoosier Olympians become FBI agents. Track star Don Lash (1912-1994) attended Auburn High School, which did not have an indoor or outdoor track. "He discovered his talents while chasing rabbits on his grandfather's farm," according to David's book.

Although Don Lash set world records before and after the 1936 Berlin Olympics, he did not win a medal at the games. But his prowess evidently became an asset during his 21-year career with the FBI. "He was assigned to cases in which agents thought a suspect might flee on foot so that he could catch them," David writes. 

The other Olympian-turned-FBI agent was Fred Wilt (1920-1994), a native of Pendleton, Ind. He competed in track events in the 1948 London Olympics and the 1952 Helsinki Olympics. Like Don Lash, he did not win an Olympic medal, but he set world records at other competitions. Lash followed up his 22-year career at the FBI with a stint as the women's track coach at Purdue University.