Remembering Horace Ashenfelter, America's Olympic steeplechase champion

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One of my great regrets is not having met the late Horace Ashenfelter. The late James Dunaway wrote a fine feature on Horace, his former roommate at Penn, in 1996. We are fortunate to have Elliott Denman, who not only shares a birthday with Horace, but also was an Olympic race walker.

Here's is his fine tribute to Horace Ashenfelter, the 1952 Olympic gold medalist at the steeplechase.

image006.jpgHorace Ashenfelter makes history, 1952 Helsinki, Olympic steeplechase, probably AP

By ELLIOTT DENMAN
GLEN RIDGE, N.J. - January 23 would have marked Horace Ashenfelter's 95th birthday.
It's a milestone many in his hometown would have loved to share with this certified icon of
the American and Olympic track and field worlds.


But it's not going to be a day for celebrations in Glen Ridge, N.J.

In one of the few finish lines he failed to reach, the only American runner ever to win the 3,000-meter steeplechase at the Olympic Games - the winner in an epic confrontation with VladimirKazantsev of the Soviet Union at the 1952 Helsinki Olympic
Games - fell 17 days short of the completion of his 95th year.


Glen Ridger "Ash" passed away, age 94 years and 348 days, on January 6th, 2018.
For sure, there will be toasts to his lifetime of achievement.


Another memorial service is scheduled for February 10th.


But the calendar had taken its inevitable toll.


Then again, Horace Ashenfelter had already "done it all."


There had already been so many "special" days and remarkable years.


Among them were these:


March 6, 1948 - Penn State student Ashenfelter wins the IC4A indoor two-mile title at Madison Square Garden in 9:14.9. He'd go on to win the IC4A two-mile outdoors in 1948 and 1949, along with the NCAA outdoor two-mile in 1949, in a brilliant collegiate career as a Nittany Lion. (The 1948 NCAA cross country meet was memorable, too, in Ashenfelter lore. In the lead by at least 30 yards, but on a poorly marked course at Michigan State, he took a wrong turn and wound up second to an IC4A rival, Rhode Island's Bob Black.

April 27, 1949 - Brothers Don, Bill and Horace Ashenfelter team up with Bob Parsons, powering Penn State to four-mile relay victory for Penn State at the Penn Relays in 17:35.4.


June 23, 1950 - Ashenfelter wins National AAU 10,000-meter title in 32:44.3 at College Park, Maryland; this would be the first of 18 National AAU titles he'd win at events as varied as the steeplechase and 10K cross country, along with five straight wins in the National AAU indoor three-mile at Madison Square Garden.


July 25, 1952 - Then-FBI agent Ashenfelter wins the Olympic 3,000-meter steeplechase final at the Helsinki Olympic Games in the world-record time of 8:45.4, in the process outrunning Kazantsev, the Soviet athlete who'd held the previous world mark of 8:48.6. With an incredible burst over the final water jump, Ashenfelter won the race going away and oh, did the headline-writers of the day take joy in this Cold War episode. Best of them said "FBI Man Runs Down Russian."


As the official USA Olympic book put it, "Ashenfelter, employing successfully his new style jumping, hesitated momentarily atop the (final) barrier, then broad jumped the water, and continued, stride unbroken, to overtake the tired Russian and build up a seven-yard lead at the finish."


Kazantsev had opened the event with his 8:58.0 win in the trial round; Ashenfleter then established himself as a contender by winning the third qualifying heat in 8:51.0. The rest became "one for the books."


Brother Bill, his USA teammate, also qualified for the '52 steeple team but bowed out in the prelims. At age 33, Horace qualified for his second Olympic team, at Melbourne in 1956, but was unable to advance out of the opening round, missing out by just one
position.


Summer of 1999- Penn State completes construction of the nation's foremost, most versatile, state-of-the-art indoor track venue. It is formally named the Horace Ashenfelter III Indoor Track.


November 22, 2001 - The first edition of the Ashenfelter 8K Classic road run is staged, starting and finshing in front of Glen Ridge High School, and is an immediate success. A Thanksgiving morning special, it becomes New Jersey's most successful "Turkey Trot."
Directed by Dan Murphy, and the Glen Ridge Education Foundation, the "A8K" grows and grows in stature as a Turkey Day festive occasion.


As the event's own website puts it, the race "can be your solution to over-eating on Thanksgiving Day. Burn those pre-dinner calories and have fun doing it by running (or jogging) in an 8K race that celebrates Horace Ashenfelter. Or the companion Tom Fleming Mile.


For Thanksgiving after Thankgiving, Ash was there, atop the steep
slope at the finish line, cheering on the mulititudes who'd really come to cheer him and his deeds.


But he was unable to attend the 2017 event, won by (men) Morgan Pearson in 23:15, and (women) Shelby Greany in 27:53. The years were finally taking their toll.


Now enshrined in an array of Halls of Fame, Ashenfelter's place in the honored archives of the sport is enduring.


In his latter years, he was recognized as just one of five living Americans to win a distance race at the Olympic Games, and was the senior member of that distinguished quintet which also included Bob Schul (men's 5,000 meters 1964), Billy Mills (men's 10,000 meters 1964), Frank Shorter (men's marathon, 1972) and Joan Benoit Samuelson (women's marathon, 1984.)


Recent months have taken away other legends - among them two-time NYC Marathon champion Tom Fleming, for whom "Ash" was an early inspiration, along with Cy Young, the only American man ever to win the Olympic javelin throw.


At one edition of the "A8K" a while back, Mike McDonnell of Middletown, a former FBI colleague and Masters runner, was asked to delve into his collection of memories.


"I've known Horace over 50 years now, " said McDonnell. "He's a tremendous gentleman, as I've said many times. A great family man, too.


"Once, he and a partner, they were chasing an alleged perpetrator around a lake, I think it was in Newark. He went one way around the lake, his partner around the other. Horace, of course, caught up to the guy first.


"He got in his training in that way, that's how he trained for the Olympics.


"This (A8K) race started out small, with maybe 400 runners, but just look at what is now (with a field of nearly three thousand), a real
tribute to Horace,"


"Horace is one of the real icons," said "A8K" official Wayne Baker. "He's a model for what Mills and Schul did in the 1960s. He was one of the inspirations."


The years flew by - along with the passing parade - but the Ashenfelter sense of humor remained very much alive and well.


He always had the best kind of answers to FAQ's.


For instance, these from Thanksgiving Day 2014:
Q. "How are you feeling these days?" A. "Compared to what?"
Q. "Will we ever see another American win the Olympic steeplechase?"
A. "Probably not in my lifetime. I'd like to see it, but I'm afraid I'm not."
Q. "How about that Evan Jager (who had lowered the American SC record to 8:06.81 in Monaco in 2012, then 8:04.71 at Brussels in 2014)?"
A. "I couldn't carry his bag."
(And then Jager sliced it all the way to 8:00.45 at Paris in 2015.)
The world steeplechase record was cut down to 7:53.63 (by Saif Saaeed Shaheen of Qatar) in 2004, prompting "Ash" to say "that's an amazing situation. It's truly great. Just shows you what man can do."


Another point he often made was this: He was not the only American male athlete to win the steeplechase at the Olympic Games. He reminded interviewers that American James Lightbody had won the steeplechase at the 1904 Games in St. Louis - but that steeple race was 2,590 meters, not 3,000.


Horace and Lillian Ashenfelter, wed 73 years, were the parents of four, grandparents of 14, and great-grandparents of four.


They continued to count their many blessings as the years rolled on. "Sure we're showing our age," he'd said, "but everybody else is doing the same thing."


There were no coulda-woulda-shouldas for this man.


One of the first to offer congratulations after the 1952 Olympic win was J. Edgar Hoover, his FBI boss.


Hoover's telegram said, "All your associates in the FBI are proud of your brilliant victory and happy with you over your establishment of a new record."


At the height of The Cold War, he'd raised every other American's spirits, too.


On this January 23, it seems a very good time to raise our salutes to this very special American all over again.


(Elliott Denman was a proud Olympic teammate of Horace Ashenfelter at Melbourne in 1956. And his birthday is January 23, too.)

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