Olympic legend Bob Mathias had a strong Iowa connection
When I was a kid growing up in Waterloo in the mid 1950s, I saw the movie “The Bob Mathias Story” and immediately became a huge fan of the Olympic Games.
The movie told the story of a young man from Tulare, California, who shocked the world in 1948 by winning the grueling decathlon event in London. It was the first Olympics held after World War II – and it was something that the global community needed to help recover from the horror and devastation of that conflict.
The amazing part of the Bob Mathias story was that he was only 17 years old when he won the decathlon – which many consider the toughest sporting competition ever devised by man. It includes ten events that test an athlete’s skills in running, jumping, throwing and vaulting.
Bob came back to win the Olympics again in 1952, in Helsinki, Finland – and then as a football player scored the winning touchdown over Southern Cal that put Stanford into the 1952 Rose Bowl.
Later in life, he became a movie actor, a Marine office, a four-term United States Congressman, and the first director of the United States Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs.
It was Iowan John Wayne who gave Bob his start in Hollywood. When John Wayne entered the world in Winterset, Iowa, back on May 26, 1907, his given name was Marion Morrison. After winning his second gold medal in 1952, Mathias received a phone call from Bob Morrison, John Wayne’s brother, who worked at Wayne’s movie company called Batjac. They were interested in signing Mathias to a movie contract.
Mathias said in his 2001 autobiography that Wayne was one of his all-time heroes and meeting the ex-Iowan was a great thrill.
He “was a wonderful man”, said Bob. “We didn’t exactly hang around together but I did get to know him in an employee-to-boss relationship, and he had as much charisma in person as on the screen. In fact, the John Wayne that we saw in the movies was the same John Wayne who walked into the office. Tall, handsome, masculine and an all altogether imposing presence – just like on the screen.”
Over the last 15 years, I was privileged to become friends with Bob Mathias. I helped promote his autobiography and I also brought him to Newton, Iowa, in 2003 as a celebrity guest at the International Wrestling Institute and Museum’s annual golf event
Bob was a modest and polite person. He fired the gun for the start of a 10K race in Newton, signed autographs and “hung out” with the fans. He also posed for a photo with six Olympic wrestling champions from Iowa, which is printed in the following Olympic story
Sadly, he passed away on September 2, 2006, at age 75. I think about him every time I hear or read something about the Olympic Games. To me, Bob Mathias represents the Games!
There is a special aura about the words “Olympic champion”. It’s a title that once earned stays with a person all through his or her life, and stirs admiration in most people. In a poll conducted several years ago, an Olympic champion is the most admired of all athletes, in any sport, and by a wide margin.
Iowa has a long and wonderful history of participation in the Olympic Games and this issue of Iowa History Journal reflects that proud heritage. With the Games opening in London on July 27 and running through August 12, we thought our readers would enjoy a review of the great athletes, men and women, who have brought Olympic glory back to the state of Iowa.
Don Doxsie has done a terrific job of researching Iowans in the Olympics, concentrating on those who have won medals. There are also a couple of sidebars about these special athletes from Iowa. We hope you enjoy this very special issue.
(Mike Chapman is the publisher of Iowa History Journal. Born and raised in Waterloo, he retired from a 35-year newspaper career in 2002. He is the author of 21 books and is a public speaker. He and his wife, Bev, live in Newton.)