Thirty five years ago today marked the passing of one of America’s greatest athletes.
In the high-tech ‘sensationalism sells’ media, the death of 78 year old Glenn Cunningham was reduced to a mere news brief between two TV shows the day after. To face crushing adversity at a young age, triumph over insurmountable odds to become an Olympic champion, and dedicate a lifetime to help others, just wasn’t as newsworthy as Andy Gibb.
I had the privilege of meeting Mr. Cunningham in 1972, during a speaking engagement at my Alma Mater Southview High School in Lorain, Ohio. I was a sophomore and a member of the girl’s track team. He told the assembled students about the tragic accident that at the age of 7, left him with severe burns and took his brother’s life. He recounted the prospect of never walking again and the pain he endured while his parents took turns massaging his badly scarred, atrophied legs.
His self-administered rehabilitation took the form of crawling, then gradually changing from a “hopping gait” to running.
His father’s words to him were” “Never quit”.
At the age of 20, Glenn Cunningham won a silver medal in the 1,500 meter race in the 1936 Olympics. He was a six-time winner of the Wanamaker Mile at New York’s Millrose Games and earned the Sullivan Award as the top amateur athlete in America in 1938.
He was also a five-time U.S. champion.
After his speech, I shook his hand, expressed my admiration, and told him of my participation on the track team. He offered constructive advice, mentioned his amazement at the records being set by young athletes and how the training methods had improved in 30 years.
His consideration and kindness made quite an impression on an awestruck 15 year old.
Before his visit, I read about his life as well as the biography of another great athlete of the 20th Century; Mildred “Babe” Didrikson, who died fighting a battle with cancer in 1956.
I admired them. Their lives embodied victory through perseverance, proving that personal tragedy can be overcome.
Mr. Cunningham devoted much of his life to helping troubled kids. He and his wife Ruth established a youth ranch in Kansas and another in Arkansas, giving refuge to over 9000 teens.
I wrote him a letter in March of 1972, and received a long awaited reply the following year. He apologized for the belated response saying, “Demands on my time have been so great, I’ve had time for nothing else”. I certainly understood.
My own track career was limited to High School Varsity and a couple of years in the Junior Olympics. Upon graduation, I chose to serve my country as a U.S. Soldier which involved a lot of running during PT.
In a contemporary sports world permeated with over-paid prima donnas and woke politics, the Cunningham and Didrikson types are anachronisms.
They played for the love of the sport and life itself.