Road To Tokyo: Qualifying for the Olympic Trials

It’s a cool Saturday afternoon, June 6th, 1964. I am at the United States Marine Corps Base in Quantico, Virginia, the site of the All-Military Track and Field Championships.

Today is the final of the 10,000 meter run. The winner will advance to the 1964 USA Olympic trials on September 12th in Los Angeles, California.

Avoiding going low blood sugar during competition still remains a mystery. So much depends on my nervousness beforehand or how rested my body feels. Will it always be this way?

Deciding to practice the visualization exercises that helps me cope with the pressure of being borderline diabetic, hypoglycemic, and injured should keep me more positive.

I find focusing on how much my injuries have improved rather than still being injured is very helpful. Reviewing the number of times I have written “Olympic 10,000 meter gold medal” in my log book is hypnotizing and comforting. Getting lost in my own mind with my eyes closed was living the dream — making it real.

Hearing a voice say, “Billy, what are you doing here? We have been waiting outside; your race starts in 15 minutes,” jolts me back to real time.

Already having my race gear on was a blessing. With my spikes in hand, I jump into a waiting car. Screeching to a stop, we are now at the track.

Seeing the 10,000 meter runners doing last-minute strides is reassuring. Learning the meet is 15 minutes behind schedule, I rush to the trainer’s tent. He does a quick taping of my right shin, but doesn’t have time to tape my foot; the runners are all lined up. The trainer says sorry, then “Stay calm but move!” my heart doesn’t hear him because it began to pound. Sweat begins to pour off of me.

Stepping onto the track, the starter’s lips move in slow motion. Runners set. He raises his pistol and fires. I don’t hear the noise, but see the smoke.

My most important race of this season to date is underway. As soon as we start to run, my mind clears and my heart settles into a competitive beat.

To my surprise no one is willing to take the lead. We move at an embarrassingly slow pace. I decide to take the lead and keep the pace slow; it will serve as my warm-up. I am thrilled they continue to let me lead. Let’s see how long they let me do this. Mile 1, 2, 3, and 4 and still no one is willing to push the pace.

Some must be more confident they can win coming off a slow pace with a strong sprint starting 600 yards or less from the finish line. Sprinting is when my right leg and foot hurt the most. It’s best for me to make a strong move with 1 1/2 miles to go.

Choosing a faster pace, rather than a sprint at the end, breaks the race wide open. No one follows and I win by a comfortable margin.

My first Olympic gold medal quest is accomplished:

I have qualified for the Olympic trials in the 10,000 meter run.

Ecstatic, and on the verge of tears calls for an extra long cool down to regain my composure.

My mind takes me back to the many months while stationed here in Quantico. I battled to be transferred to Camp Pendleton and join the elite Marine Corps team training for the Olympic trials.

Isn’t it ironic Quantico is where I also qualified for the Olympic trials?

My call to Patricia is placed. As soon as she hears the news, she says how thrilled she is, then “I always expected you to accomplish what you said you would do!” Patricia with such innocence, always shows her belief in me.

I jokingly think, “Is it naivete about distance running or can she see into the future?” Regardless, her support is based on love and is deeply needed and appreciated. It helps me stay the course, pursuing the dream.

There is a little static on the phone, then Patricia says “Christy misses her daddy”. There’s a moment of silence as we both reflect on how much love our 15 month old daughter brings us.

She says, “Christy wants you to sing to her.”

My sharing with Patricia the many footsteps taken, holding Christy in my arms with her head resting on my shoulder while I sing “Put your head on my shoulder” or “You are my special angel” is very emotional to me. These are sacred moments.

She laughs, then asks “What are you going to do if we have more daughters?”

Giggling, my response is “Sing the same two songs to all of them until they realize Daddy can’t carry a tune!” Over the phone I hear “Christy already knows that!” We are both laughing as we hang up with “See you soon.”

Today is June 30th, my birthday. I wonder what blessing my 26th year will bring. We are at the officers club for a candlelight dinner.

Toward the end of the evening, she tells me she made a doctors appointment for Christy, since we are both worried why, at 16 months of age, she has not started to walk yet. She continued “The appointment is next week after you return from the Olympic semi trials track meet in New York. The doctor wants both of us at the appointment.”

It is now July 3rd and I am in New York City with the USMC athletes competing in the Olympic semi trials track meet.

I just finished my best week of training with 108 miles of hard, intense work. Coach is trying to talk me into taking a rest and not competing in the 5,000 meters today. He said, “Your injuries are so close to healing up and your body could use a break.” His final statement was, “Our best are here, Billy. You don’t train through a meet with them competing, you race them fresh.”

Coach invites me to watch the decathlon with him. The winner is automatically on the Olympic team. Our two marines competing are Don Jeisy and Dick Emberger. Both have a chance to win.

My decision is to run the 5,000 meters. Coach encourages me to just make it a good workout.

The 5,000 meters is underway. My plan is to go with the leaders. The pace is not very fast, and it’s encouraging, but early it becomes a struggle. I am losing contact. Aware of walking off the track, I am unaware of finishing the race or dropping out, and not able to recall very much of it.

Someone gives me a soft drink. Recovering a little, my symptoms of being confused, shaky and experiencing the sticky, clammy sweat, not the free-flowing sweat of healthy exercise, frightens me. I am low blood sugar, but I didn’t know what to do. Here is when confusion usually wins out over critical thinking. It can be dangerous!

In my case, the winner is Coach Thompson and my hunger pains. He found me, checked me out, and then treated me to a hamburger and unlimited water, but I chose soft drinks. As we ate, he said, “Keep believing, Billy. You have incredible talent and will be ready when it counts.”

Today is Christy’s doctors appointment. He held Christy and baby-talked to her. She giggled. He said the first test is painless but she may cry if she is shy. We are asked to leave the room. Just step out into the hallway, leave the door open and call Christy. We both call her and in a few seconds, she walked out of his office with a big smile. The sacredness of youth and love of family always seems to rescue me.

A few days later, we are on a walk. Patricia says Don and Marylou are making arrangements for her trip to the Olympic games. She wants me to room with her!

I could see Patricia’s excitement and beautiful sparkling eyes as she said, “Shall we start making my arrangements?” Her expression and depth of sincerity showed belief and hope no matter how confusing my road to Tokyo seems at the moment.

Belief and hope is what I needed. It’s what dreams are made of. Although I have not made the Olympic team yet, our eyes met, we hugged, we both nodded, saying, “Yes, it’s time.”

I am back in the dream.


See you next month!

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