Horace Ashenfelter is an Olympic champion in track and field (1952, Helsinki) and a 1985 NYAC Hall of Fame Inductee.
Ashenfelter was born on January 9th, 1923 in Collegeville, Pennsylvania. In high school, Ashenfelter was a three sport athlete: he competed on the football, baseball and track and field teams. Ashenfelter also took up boxing as a freshman at Penn State University in 1942, but he put his college career on hold after his first year to join the Air Force. Ashenfelter spent the remainder of World War II training fighter pilots for combat.
Ashenfelter returned to Penn State after the war, and under the guidance of coach Chick Werner became one of the best runners in the NCAA. Among his achievements were two IC4A championships in the two miles (1948, 9:13.2; 1949, 9:09.2), an IC4A Indoor two miles championship (1948, 9:11), and an NCAA two miles championship (1949, 9:03.9).
After Graduating from Penn State, Ashenfelter became a member of the NYAC. It was there that he first began running his signature event, the 3000m Steeplechase. Unlike most current Olympic athletes, Ashenfelter had to juggle his training with his responsibilities as a federal agent.
In 1950, Ashenfelter started working at the FBI. Years later, when asked how it was possible to train for the Olympic while working as an FBI agent, Ashenfelter said, “You get 36 hours a day, that’s all.”
Ashenfelter trained at night, dragging a bench onto the track at a nearby park to simulate the steeplechase course. For months, Ashenfelter trained with no partners, hurdles, or even a proper watch. Nonetheless, his unorthodox training methods paid off at the 1952 Olympic trials, where he punched his ticket to Helsinki.
While Ashenfelter believed in himself, no one else in the world expected him to win. The previous year, Vladamir Kazantsev of Russia set a new world record with a time of 8:48.6, breaking the previous record by over 10 seconds. In the eyes of most, it had become a race for the silver medal.
Ashenfelter was unfazed by the Russian phenom. He set a personal record in the heats (8:51), and, going into the finals, was overflowing with confidence. “I’m going to win this,” Ashenfelter said to his wife the night before the final.
Ashenfelter got off to a poor start, falling behind the lead pack early on in the race. However, he quickly made up ground and found himself in the lead. After only four laps, it was a two man race between Kazantsev and Ashenfelter.
Heading into the final water pit, the two competitors were neck and neck. However, Kazantsev stumbled after the last jump and Ashenfelter pulled away with ease, setting a new world record of 8:45.4. Ashenfelter celebrated his victory by jumping into the stands, running up 30 rows, and giving his wife a celebratory kiss.
That his victory came during the height of McCarthyism made it all the more significant; it was joked that Ashenfelter was the only FBI who willingly let a Russian chase him.
Ashenfelter remains the only American to ever win an Olympic gold medal or set a world record in the steeplechase. Additionally, Ashenfelter won 18 national championships, both indoor and outdoor, throughout his career. He would also qualify for the 1956 Olympic Games in Melbourne, but was eliminated in the heats.
Ashenfelter donated his gold medal to Penn State. In 1999, the University named its new indoor track and field facility in his honor.
Ashenfelter passed away on January 6th, 2018 at the age of 94.