Olympic champion from West Milton dies at 86

Bob Schul remains the USA’s only gold medal winner in the 5,000 meters

Credit: Nick Graham

Credit: Nick Graham

Bob Schul, a West Milton native who won an Olympic gold medal in the 5,000-meter run in 1964, died at 86 on Sunday at an assisted-living facility in Middletown, his daughter Robin Thurber said.

Schul lived most of his life in the Dayton area, Thurber said. He graduated from West Milton High School in 1955 and then ran at Miami University.

“Running was definitely his life and priority,” Thurber said, “and we all just kind of came along for the ride, but I was always included and enjoyed being part of that.”

On Oct. 18, 1964, at the Olympics in Tokyo, Japan, Schul won the gold in the 5,000 with a time of 13 minutes, 48.8 seconds. He was 27 years old.

Schul was the first American to win the race at the Olympics, and he remains the only American to do so. Only two Americans have medaled in the race since Schul’s victory. Paul Chelimo won the silver in 2016 and the bronze in 2020.

Schul overtook Michel Jazy, of France, in the final 80 yards and beat the second-place finisher, Harald Norpoth, of Germany, by 0.8 seconds. He called it one of his easy races. A YouTube video of the race shows Schul with a wide lead at the finish.

“I felt Jazy would make his move with 300 to go,” Schul said after the race. “I was ready for him. But I got worried on the last turn when he was still four or five yards up on me. In the stretch, it was clear sailing.”

In a 2014 interview with the Dayton Daily News, Schul credited the support he received from home for his victory

“When I ran, I received a telegram from the people of West Milton who signed it, and it was 30 pages long,” Schul said. “Thousands of people signed that. That was meaningful to me. Miami University did the same thing. When you get that prior to the race, you know it’s not just for you. It’s for everybody. It’s just a wonderful feeling.”

Schul also talked about the race in 2014 in a story in Runner’s World.

“No other American had ever been favored in a distance race before,” Schul said. “That, in itself, made it big. I knew my body was in tremendous shape going into that race and I had done all the right things in 1964 to prepare for that race.”

Thurber grew up hearing about the race. Her dad loved to talk about it. He displayed many mementos from his career in their house when she was growing up — but not the gold medal.

“He trained a national team in Malaysia when I was a baby,” Thurber said, “and the gold medal was locked in a cabinet back in Oakland (Calif.). That’s where we lived at the time, and it was stolen. So I have no memory of the gold medal. He never quite got over that.”

Schul’s running career started with West Milton’s first cross country team in 1951. He finished eighth in the state cross country meet as a senior in 1954.

Schul overcame asthma to become an Olympic champion. In 2021, he told the Journal News his condition worsened every summer because of pollen on his family’s farm in West Milton.

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

Schul was inducted into the Miami University Hall of Fame in 1973. According to the Miami website, he still holds three school records: the mile (3:59.1), the two-mile run (8:47.3) and the three-mile run (13:15.6).

Schul ran for Miami in 1957 and 1958 and then joined the Air Force in 1959. He returned to school and graduated in 1966.

Schul was inducted into the Dayton Distance Hall of Fame in 1986 and into the Dayton Region Walk of Fame in 2015.

High school runners from around the area have competed at the Bob Schul Invitational in West Milton since 1971.

Knee pain ended Schul’s international running career in 1965. He stayed in the sport by starting Wright State’s men’s cross country program in 1973. At that point, he was living in Troy and running a sporting goods business.

Schul coached Wright State until 1981 when the program disbanded. Then it returned in 1999 with Schul again as coach. He then started the women’s program in 2001. He coached at Wright State until 2006.

In the 1980s and 1990s, Schul taught in the Dayton school system and coached track at Brookville, Oakwood, Centerville, Wayne and Wittenberg University.

Schul lived at the facility in Middletown for the last five years, his daughter said. He remained active for decades after his competitive career ended.

“He ran until he couldn’t run anymore,” Thurber said. “He was still an active runner, even if he wasn’t racing anymore. He got a lot of pleasure out of training young runners as well and helping them be better at the sport if they had Olympic dreams of their own. He wanted to help them get there. He never quite trained an Olympian, but he trained some people that got pretty darn close or at least ran well at the collegiate level. He got a lot of joy out of that and giving back to his running community.”

Joseph Fuller, a Sidney Lehman Catholic graduate who’s now a race director at Skunk Ape Events, paid tribute to Schul on Facebook on Monday.

“Bob Schul’s journey in the sport of running was extraordinary,” Fuller wrote. “As an Olympian, he achieved the pinnacle of success, inspiring generations of runners with his determination and skill. His contributions as a coach were equally significant; he had a unique ability to instill discipline, passion, and a love for the sport in all his athletes. His teachings went beyond mere techniques; he imparted life lessons that have shaped the character and careers of many.”

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