Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Pole-vaulting Preacher

The Men's Pole-vaulting competition begins today at the Olympic Games in China, which seems an appropriate time to tell the story of the Church of the Brethren's own "Pole-vaulting Preacher."

Robert "Bob" Richards, who was at the time a Church of the Brethren minister, competed in three Olympics in the 40s and 50s. He won the Gold Medal in the 1956 Games, clearing fifteen feet on his sixty-fifth attempt, only the second pole vaulter in histry to clear 15' [Note that vaulters are clearing 19' this year.] In 1951 Richards won the Sullivan Award as the amateur athlete of the year and was also the US national decathlon champion.

The only two-time Olympic gold medal winner in the pole vault, Richards later became involved in promoting physical fitness and continued to vault in his later years. He was the first athlete to appear on the front of Wheaties cereal boxes in 1958 (though not the first depicted on all parts of the packaging), and also was the first Wheaties spokesman, setting up the Wheaties Sports Foundation, which encouraged participation in Olympic sports.

Richards grew up in Champaign, IL, where he was a member of a local gang - five of his comrades later went to prison. Instead of following their course Richards became active in the Champaign Church of the Brethren. With the encouragement of Pastor Merlin Garber, he went on to Bridgewater College and Bethany Theological Seminary. He was ordained in 1946 as a Church of the Brethren minister and was later pastor of the Long Beach, CA Church of the Brethren. Always in demand as an inspirational speaker (he used to average 500 speeches a year), Richards held many evangelistic meetings.

At the height of his sports activity, Richards would tell reporters, "I can sincerely say I owe my athletic achievements to the power of the Lord."

Sources: The Brethren Encyclopedia