McCrabb: Born with asthma, this Olympic gold medalist became a running legend

Credit: Nick Graham

Credit: Nick Graham

Miami University standout, who won gold at 1964 Olympics, lives at local memory care facility

When Robert “Bob” Schul was born in 1937, he was diagnosed with asthma, a condition that worsened in the summer due to the pollen on his family’s farm in West Milton.

Little Bob spent most of his time in the farmhouse because there were days when he felt like he was going to die.

“I didn’t think I’d make it,” Schul said. “There were some bad times. I didn’t know if I’d live another day.”

No one knew at the time but the asthmatic little boy would turn into a world-class athlete who became the first American to win an Olympic gold medal in the 5,000 meters at the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo.

Schul, 83, has lived at Bickford of Middletown, an assisted living and memory care facility on Union Road, since November. He moved to the area to be closer to his brother, David, who lives in Middletown, while his older brother, Norman lives in South Carolina.

The facility hosted an Olympic party Friday night in honor of Shul, who won gold in the same city as this year’s Olympics. There was a parade, dinner, music, chair volleyball and cornhole.

Probably a red, white and blue cake too, though Schul didn’t have a piece. He avoids sweets, coffee, alcohol and tobacco. Once an athlete in training, always an athlete in training.

On Thursday morning, Schul talked about his childhood on the farm and his rise to Olympic glory.

“That’s really hard to do,” he said when asked to recall the 1964 Olympics. “A lot of that is gone for one reason or another.”

As he talked about his parents never missing one of his races, tears filled his eyes. He grabbed a paper towel out of his sweatpants and dabbed at the tears.

When the interview was over, Schul posed near the gazebo wearing the blue blazer he received for being a gold medalist. It fit the same as it did nearly six decades ago.

Then he took off the jacket and ran a few laps around the facility, the same routine he follows every morning.

Credit: Nick Graham

Credit: Nick Graham

He runs on a makeshift track inside Bickford when the weather is inclement and outside when the conditions are favorable. Cindy Depew, activities director at Bickford, said Schul has tried to recruit other residents to join his running club, but no one wants to get up at 6 a.m.

“He’s very determined, passionate and disciplined,” Depew said. “He tries to inspire us.”

That’s true today. And it was true when Schul started his running career.

By the time Schul reached high school, his asthma had improved so he started his competitive racing. He had “fought through” the condition and found running long distances enjoyable.

“That’s when it turned around,” he said. “I continued to get better.”

Then he smiled. “I became pretty good.”

He also ran at Miami University and he remembers working on the conditions of the cinder track. He said some long distance runners at Miami were “pretty darn good,” but after intensive training, Schul’s time continued to improve.

In 1956, while at Miami, he broke the school record in the mile as a sophomore running 4:12.1. He then joined the Air Force.

He returned to Miami in the fall of 1963. He won the U.S. Championships and Olympic Trials and on Aug. 29, 1964, he set a world record for two miles of 8:26.4.

He was the favorite to win the gold at the Olympics. In the last lap, Schul caught the leader and pulled away for a clear victory.

He stood on the top podium as the national anthem played.

“It was great because I had come all that way,” he said.

Some memories can’t be erased.


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Kayla Harrison: 2012 and 2016 gold medalist, judo

Zach Apple: 2021 Olympics, 100-meter freestyle swimming

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