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The man behind the monsters
CLEARING THE HURDLES
HOW TOM HILL EARNED A PLACE IN HISTORY AT THE 1972 OLYMPICS
Even now, nearly four decades since he cleared 42-inch barriers on a worldwide stage, Thomas Hill still looks like he
could step on the track
and be a hurdler worthy of his legacy.
Few know that when they see Iowa State’s vice president for student affairs taking long strides to his Beardshear Hall office, they are eyeing one of the greatest hurdlers in track and field history.
You must approach Hill about his Olympic past. If you don’t, you will never know about his first-person experiences of life and death at the 1972 Munich Games and his pursuit of an Olympic dream.
His is a story of overcoming great odds, of triumph over tragedy, and of
success far beyond athletics.
The road to the Olympics
The Games of the XX Olympiad
opened on Aug. 26, 1972, in Munich,
West Germany. Among the 7,170
athletes from 121 nations marching
into the Olympic Stadium for opening ceremonies was 22-year-old Lt. Thomas Hill of the U.S. Army.
The atmosphere was one of euphoria. This was the first Olympics on German soil since the 1936 Berlin Games that had served as a witness to the Third Reich of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany. For the West German government, it was an opportunity to showcase a country that had worked hard to shake the bonds of
its recent past.
Hill had won the 1972 U.S. Olympic Trials in the 110-meter high hurdles, upsetting favorite Rod Milburn and 1968 Olympic gold medalist Willie Davenport. Hill had come a long way from the Magnolia Housing Project in New Orleans, where he grew up.
“It was low income but high density, so there was always something going on with lots of kids playing ball games and making up their own sports,” Hill said of his childhood home. “It was a very engaging and exciting place to be as a kid.”
Hill’s first foray into track and field came by clearing the high jump bar, not a hurdle, at New Orleans’ Walter L. Cohen High School. From there Hill went on to become one of the first African-American athletes to earn a scholarship at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro.
“[Arkansas State] provided a good environment for me to develop as an
athlete, as a scholar, and as an individual,” Hill said. “For me, it was the perfect setting to grow.”
Hill’s athletic focus became the 110-meter hurdles. His watershed moment was at the 1970 U.S. Track and Field Federation meet, where Hill raced to
victory in his semifinal heat in 13.1
seconds. (Anything under 14 seconds
is very good. Anything under 13.50 is world class.)
The time eclipsed the world record, but the wind reading of the breeze at his back was barely over the allowable limit to stand as a global mark. Undaunted, Hill roared back to win the final in 13.2
It was all too much for his college coach, Thad Talley.
“My coach went nuts,” Hill remembers. “I did not know what I had done. I just went out when it was my time to run. But he kept telling me, ‘Do you know what you have done? You just distinguished yourself as one of the best hurdlers in the world.’ That was the moment when I thought, ‘I’m pretty good at this.’”
“Pretty good” does not do justice in describing Hill’s 1970 season. He won the Drake Relays, the U.S. national championships, and the AAU meet. What followed was an exemplary
summer of competition in Europe, in which Hill won five of six races. At the end of the season, he was named the world’s top hurdler by the bible of U.S. track and field, Track and Field News.
The lithe-framed Hill had reached
the first peak of his career. More would follow, but the path Hill would have to take would be no yellow brick road to instant glory. Major roadblocks would challenge him on his quest to compete
in the 1972 Olympic Games.
Setbacks and comebacks
World events figured large in Hill’s
choices. He was affected at the time, like every young American male, by the Vietnam War and the draft.
“I was married, still in college, and my oldest son was born, so I had to take care of my family,” Hill said. “In 1970 I was drafted. I really wanted to continue my education, so I decided to join ROTC, which gave me the opportunity to complete my degree and join the service as an officer upon graduation.”
His first career detour came in December 1970. After tying a world indoor record in Berlin, Hill crashed in Monroe, La., in a 60-yard hurdles competition. He suffered a severe knee injury. The world’s best hurdler of 1970 would miss the entire 1971 season. Some
doctors said he would never run again.
The Army turned out to be Hill’s fallback. In retrospect, Hill’s decision to join the service was far-sighted.
“I went on to active duty,” Hill said. “That made all the difference in the world, because when I came off injury
in 1971 I could focus on training. I didn’t have to worry about my family because we were on the Army’s payroll.”
With the 1972 Olympics looming,
Hill would have to first prove he could run at all, let alone make the Olympic team. There were no guarantees. Hill’s comeback would have to start from square one.
“Thomas Hill had the American dream in tow a year ago,” reported the December 1971 Track and Field News. “He was the glamour boy...a brightly emerging star on the international scene. That was a year ago. Today Thomas Hill’s name brings only a vague remembrance…he no longer is considered a part of the great American hurdling contingent…Hill was the kid from Arkansas State, who was here and gone before anyone really got to know him.”
But early in the 1972 outdoor season it became apparent: Hill was back. However, his two biggest American
rivals would make sure Hill brought his “A” game to the track every day.
The veteran was 1968 Olympic gold medalist Willie “Breeze” Davenport. Six years older than Hill, Davenport had already served in the U.S. Army and was among the world’s best hurdlers.
During Hill’s 1971 hiatus, Rod Milburn had appeared on the scene and earned the international spotlight, going undefeated in 28 races. Running for Southern University, Milburn won the NCAA and AAU titles.
“Two major goals I had [in 1972] were to beat [Milburn] and make the Olympic team,” Hill said.
Milburn, Davenport, and Hill met up at the California Relays in late May. It was Milburn’s day. Davenport was second, Hill third. Milburn also won the AAU in Seattle, Wash. Hill was second, Davenport third.
Those competitions set the stage for the 1972 Olympic Trials, July 6-9 at the venerated Hayward Field at the University of Oregon in Eugene. The top three finishers in the 110-meter hurdle final would earn spots on the U.S. Olympic team for the Munich Games.
In the final, Hill scored one of the most impressive wins of his career, edging past Davenport. Milburn was third.
“I had no idea I had won it,” Hill told reporters after the race. “I thought I had tied for third. I didn’t care about the time. There were seven others in the race, and
I won it.”
The ‘Happy Games’
Hill, with his U.S. Olympic teammates, was awed by the state-of-the-art Olympic Village and the stadium in which he would run.
“Getting to Munich was a dream come true,” Hill said. “The stadium was like nothing I had ever seen. It was a track athlete’s dream. For us, it was like going to heaven.”
While no one thought it would be perfect, the organizers had selected “The Happy Games” as the Olympiad’s official slogan.
The Olympiad’s focus was on the stars of the games: U.S. swimmer Mark Spitz, who would win seven gold medals, and Soviet gymnast Olga Korbut, who would win three. Former Iowa State wrestlers Dan Gable (’71 physical education) and Ben Peterson (’72 architecture) also won Olympic titles in Munich.
On Sept. 3, the preliminary heats in the 110-meter hurdles saw Milburn, Hill, and France’s Guy Drut win their heats.
The following day, Hill edged Drut in the first semifinal. Milburn won the second semifinal, Davenport the third. All advanced to the final.
The 110-meter final was scheduled for Sept. 6. But just hours after Hill and his fellow hurdlers competed in the semifinals, the Munich “Happy Games” would take an ominous, tragic turn that would forever darken memories of the XX Olympiad.
In the early hours of Sept. 5, eight men dressed in athletics gear climbed the chain-link fence around the Olympic Village. Striking quickly, they stormed the rooms occupied by members of Israel’s Olympic team, taking a total of nine hostages after killing two Israelis who resisted capture.
The terrorists indentified themselves as members of the Black September organization – a group named for the previous September, when King Hussien of Jordan had expelled the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) from his country. The terrorists threatened to kill their hostages unless 234 Palestinians and non-Arabs jailed in Israel, along with two members of the German Red Army terrorist faction, were released and given safe passage to Egypt.
As the sunlight began to shed its first rays on the desperate situation, Hill and his teammates were waking up in another part of the village.
“We were a couple hundred meters from where the Israelis were housed,” Hill said. “I can’t reconcile all the gunfire with the fact that we slept through everything.”
Oblivious to what was happening, Hill and his teammates headed to breakfast.
“It was raining, so we went through a parking garage to breakfast instead of walking through the village,” Hill said. “There was a German soldier at the entry of the garage, and he had an automatic weapon over his shoulder. He started speaking to us in German. We didn’t understand him and told him, ‘Man, be quiet, we are going to get something to eat.’ We began to go toward the dining hall when he pulled the automatic weapon from his shoulder and cocked it. We didn’t know what he was saying, but we knew what he was doing.”
The Americans headed back to their rooms.
“By the time we got upstairs, some of the officials, trainers, and coaches told us what had happened,” Hill said.
The Games continued that day, a backdrop to the drama being played out in consultations between the German government and Black September. But the crisis could not have ended worse than it did. In the darkness of Sept. 6, the terrorists and their hostages were flown in helicopters to a military air base where the hostage takers believed there was a plane waiting to fly them out of Germany. The final hours of events were broadcast across the United States in prime time.
A poorly planned ambush and rescue attempt failed, and moments later the terrorists murdered their hostages while they sat bound in the helicopters. Compounding the tragedy was an announcement that all the hostages had been saved. But the truth was known soon enough.
As the devastating shock of the massacre played itself out, the question was eventually asked: Should the Games continue?
Hill recalls that his feelings were
“We had a wide range of emotions and feelings,” Hill said. “Early on, we thought it might be best to call the Games off, but after some time passed we actually thought that the Games should go on.
We did not want to give in to the terrorists. We would not give up on what we had come here to do. That was the opinion of most of the athletes.”
After a day of mourning and a memorial service in the Olympic Stadium on Sept. 6, the games did go on. Now, Hill had to switch gears and get ready for the biggest race of his life: the final of the
Run for the medals
Race day arrived, 24 hours later than scheduled, on Sept. 7. It was time. The eight hurdle finalists came out through the athletes’ tunnel and stood in the Olympic Stadium in their assigned lanes.
“I was very nervous, which for me
was a good thing,” Hill said. “If I went into a race and I was not nervous I had
a problem,” Hill said.
The finalists knelt with fingers on the starting line and rose on the starter’s call of “set.” For Hill, all the training, the years from New Orleans to Jonesboro to Europe and the Olympic Games, would come down to less than 14 seconds.
It is hard to believe that there was enough time for any thoughts or images to flow through the mind of a competitor charging over 10 hurdles on the world’s largest stage, but Hill still gives a detailed account 38 years later.
“I remember it like it was yesterday,” he said.
Jon Hendershott of Track and Field News wrote about the start this way: “Hill came off the line even with [Lubomire] Nadenicek [of Czechoslovakia], Milburn, and Davenport and was in the thick in the fight...”
Hill’s memory of the start is based on peripheral vision.
“I had the worst start I ever had,” Hill said. “When you look straight ahead in a hurdles race and you can see guys, they are in front of you.”
Hendershott wrote, “(Hill) was in the thick of the fight until he grazed the fourth hurdle.”
“I was thinking, ‘I came all the way over here to get beaten like a drum,’” Hill said. “So I started hustling a little bit more halfway through the race.”
And in the heat of the fight, Hill had a vision.
“I used to see cartoons, where these guys would be on an island and would not have food or water and they would hallucinate, envisioning a hot dog, which would then fly away,” Hill said. “I saw the gold medal, and it was out there, and it got wings and started to fly away. And the silver and bronze medals did the same thing.”
Hendershott continued: “(Grazing the fourth hurdle) was enough to cut (Hill’s) momentum and he cracked the fifth barrier and said goodbye to the silver medal. He still finished strongly, although not as smoothly as in previous races.”
Hill surged back into medal contention and exaggerated his lean, contorting his head forward across the finish line. Again, his peripheral vision told him who would be on the Olympic podium.
“When I got to the finish line I couldn’t see anybody, which meant I had caught everybody,” Hill said. “But that didn’t mean I had passed everybody.”
Rod Milburn had his “A” game that day. He crossed into history at the finish; Guy Drut was second.
Milburn and Drut embraced in a 1-2 hug. But for Tom Hill and Willie Davenport, destiny took its time.
“Willie asked me whether I had it, and I said, ‘I think you got me,’” Hill said.
Today, a runner can cross the finish line in a world-class meet and see his time posted immediately. In 1972, there was a delay of seconds, which must have seemed like hours to Hill and Davenport. They watched the board to know who would join Milburn and Drut on the Olympic podium.
“It took the officials a while to get it together to post third place,” Hill said. “I thought, ‘I came over here and got fourth, which was not bad, but I would go home empty handed.’ Then I thought about Willie, who had won the gold in 1968 and would now have the bronze and I would still have nothing.”
Finally, the scoreboard listed Hill third and Davenport fourth.
“I bet I jumped up 10 feet in the air,” Hill said.
Ultimately, Hill’s exaggerated lean was the difference.
Now came the fun part: climbing the Olympic podium for medal presentations. As Milburn was the gold medalist, the U.S. National Anthem resonated around the stadium.
“Nothing compares to actually having that experience of hearing the National Anthem on foreign soil and having people stand up and recognize you and your nation,” Hill said.
In the end, there was little time
to celebrate. The bronze medalist,
Lt. Thomas Hill, was recalled to his
military duties immediately with orders to leave Munich the following day.
Beyond the Games
The Munich race was far from the end of Hill’s hurdling career. In 1973, he equaled his 13.2 personal best to win the AAU Championship in Bakersfield, Calif. In 1974, Hill finished as the AAU runner-up. In 1976, he won the AAU championship and took another swing at making the U.S. Olympic team. He won his first three races at the Olympic Trials and was a finalist, but he did not make the team.
By 1977, Hill’s track career was coming to an end. But he was well prepared for life after athletics. After earning his bachelor’s degree at Arkansas State, he went on to earn a master’s degree in counselor education at C.W. Post-Long Island University in 1976 and a Ph.D. at the University of Florida in 1985. He was an assistant athletics director for student life at Tulane and Oklahoma and worked as dean for student services at Florida. In 1997, he came to Iowa State as vice president for student affairs.
Today Hill, one of five sons of the late Mattie Hill, is the only surviving member of the 1972 American Olympic hurdle team. Milburn retired from racing in 1983 and died in 1997 in an accident at a paper plant where he worked. Davenport won his bronze at age 33 in Montreal after a courageous comeback from a severe knee injury. He died of a heart attack in 2002 at the age of 59.
Hill remains a staunch advocate of
“I would not be where I am today without athletics,” Hill said.
And, it seems, the sport of track and field would not be what it is today without the groundbreaking performances of Tom Hill.
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About the Writer | Tom Kroeschell is the director of athletics communications at Iowa State University.