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Thursday, July 26, 2012
Where Are They Now: Dave Wottle

By Luke Cyphers

Dave Wottle
Dave Wottle made up a 10-meter deficit on the final lap to win Olympic gold in the 800-meter race in 1972.

Dave Wottle is celebrating a wonderful anniversary this summer, 40 years after the Munich Olympics.

And he's celebrating his gold medal in the 1972 Games, too.

The vision of Wottle, a lanky, shaggy-haired 22-year-old in a golf cap, making up a 10-meter deficit on the final lap to catch Soviet star Evgeni Arzhenov at the line in the 800-meter final, is one of the indelible Olympic images of the last 50 years. And Wottle is only too happy to commemorate the feat 10 Olympiads later. "Not a day goes by where I'm not reminded of that race," he said.

But inextricably tied to his Olympic story is another gala event -- his wedding to his wife, Jan, which also happened 40 years ago this summer.

"I was married six days after the Olympic trials, July 15, 1972," Wottle said. "Part of our honeymoon was at the pre-Olympic training camp at Bowdoin College in Maine."

That honeymoon wasn't universally well-received. Bill Bowerman, the legendary Oregon coach who helmed the Olympic track team in 1972, was not pleased with Wottle's nuptials.

"He was old-school, and I'm trying to think how to put this tactfully," Wottle said, "but he thought women weaken legs."

So much so, that after Wottle qualified for the Games in both his specialty, the 1,500 meters, and in the 800, which he ran in the trials almost as an afterthought, Bowerman tried to talk the freshly minted Bowling Green graduate out of his wedding.

"Bowerman wanted Dave to postpone the wedding until after the Olympics," recalled legendary Duke coach Al Buehler, who was an assistant with the U.S. team in Munich.

Wottle politely refused, though not because he was a courageous rebel. "I wouldn't say I stood up to Bowerman," Wottle said. "I was just a 22-year-old kid, and I didn't have the personality of a Steve Prefontaine. I think it was more like, 'I understand, but I'm going through with [the wedding].'"

Besides, he said, he would rather face Bowerman than leave his fiancée waiting at the altar, even for a couple of months.

But even today, Wottle is diplomatic about the late Bowerman's position. To be fair, he said, he thinks the coach didn't want his athlete to worry about the first few months of a marriage while preparing for an Olympic opportunity that might never come again. "He probably felt he was just giving me good advice."

In any case, the Wottles wed, spent a few days together at a state park in Ohio, and headed off to training camp in Maine, where things grew even more complicated.

Wottle was in peak condition at the trials. He not only qualified in two events, he tied the world record in the 800 at 1:44.3. But he went out hard the first day of training -- "trying to show people I was ready even after I got married," he said -- and hurt his left knee.

The tendinitis kept him from running for more than a week and curtailed much of his training in the run-up to the Games. He'd been running 70 to 75 miles a week; the most he got back to was about 35 before Munich. "So I was only going on half the mileage," Wottle said, "and I really had lost my confidence."

In hindsight, he said, his disagreement with Bowerman easily could have cost him his moment of glory. "In those days, the head coach had the right to make changes before the Games," Wottle said. "He could have said, 'Hey, you're not 100 percent.'"

The legendary but aging Jim Ryun was the alternate in the 800, and Bowerman, Wottle said, "could have easily gone with a different guy."

Even worse, Wottle's trusted coach at Bowling Green, Mel Brodt, wasn't part of the Olympic staff, so the native of Canton, Ohio, felt a bit lost.

Luckily, he had somebody to lean on: his new bride. "It meant a lot to have her there for the moral support," he said. "I had the fastest time in the world going in but I was lacking confidence in myself."

Jan kept reassuring her husband that things would work out. She was right. Wottle's race wasn't how anyone would draw up an Olympic victory, but it still thrills today. He conceded what looked to be far too much ground early, lost the pack, found it again, and in the final 200 meters took a wide course and ran down the entire field -- one by one -- catching Robert Ouko of Kenya, then Mike Boit of Kenya, before nipping the diving Arzhenov at the tape.

His golf cap became a symbol of an endearing kind of American individualism, and for a short time, a lightning rod for controversy. Wottle was an ROTC student at Bowling Green, and when his training stints ended, he grew his hair long. He used a golf cap to keep his floppy hair -- "he had Bozo hair," Buehler said -- in check when he raced. Even after he cut his locks, he kept the cap. It had become a good-luck charm, and it worked like one in Munich.

The trouble? He forgot to take it off during the playing of the national anthem in the gold-medal ceremony, causing a stir. The humble Wottle, who sang every word of the anthem on the podium, was mortified and apologized profusely, making himself even more endearing to the public.

Wottle went on to become a college administrator, and recently retired as admissions director at Rhodes College in Memphis. He and Jan raised three children, and now have five grandchildren.

Forty years on, he still has it all -- his wife, his medal and his memories.

That skinny, love-struck kid in the golf cap is a man in full.