Brooklyn native places on 1948 Olympic stage
BY PATRICK LEONARD
(Ed. Note: This is the second of a 3-part series about Brooklyn, Pa., native Curtis Stone’s participation in the Olympics, the last time they were held in London in 1948. Last week looked at Stone’s emergence from obscurity to winning an Olympic Trial. The Aug. 8 issue looks at what Stone did for an encore, and how distance running has changed.)
It was 64 years ago tomorrow thatBrooklynnative Curtis Stone stepped intoLondon’s Wembley Stadium before 83,000 spectators as a Team USA entrant in the 5,000 meters in the 1948 Summer Olympics.
Compared to what he is seeing on television, Stone, who returned to Brooklyn in the 1980s, had a much closer view of the action, even if circumstances prevented that view from being a clear one.
Stone looks back on his days as an Olympian with happiness, warmth and fond memories.
He earned his place on the 1948 Olympic team with a win inU.S.trials at Dyche Stadium inEvanston,Ill.
Not long after, he and his Olympic teammates left forLondonto begin their quest to show the world the best thatAmericahad to offer.
“Our team traveled to the Games on a boat- the U.S. America,” Stone said recently from hisBrooklynhome. “It was a big ship; the food was good. We used to jog laps around the boat for exercise so we could stay in shape. It took us five or six days to get toLondon. It was a great way to get acquainted with the other team members; a lot of us became good friends.
“You have to remember, things were different back then,” Stone continued. “We were amateurs. To compete in the Olympics you had to have a job or be in school.”
At the time Stone had been out of college for a year. He was 25 years-old, having taken three years off of school to serve in the military during World War II.
He had a job as a circulation manager at the Center Daily Times inState College. He still trained with the track team atPennState, where he previously starred as a collegiate athlete, running nine to ten miles per day. Many of those miles were run on a local golf course.
“Right around this time our methods for training started to change,” Stone explained. “In college I only practiced for an hour-and-a-half, and that included the time it took to shower and change afterwards. Leading up to the Olympics we started mimicking the Swedish method of training.”
Gunder Hagg was a record-setting runner fromSwedenin the 1940s. He held the world record in the mile at4:06in 1942 and lowered it to4:01in 1945.
Hagg’s innovative workouts consisted of interval training, in which he would run short distances at fast speeds and repeat several times.
“We did quarter mile repeats once a week,” Stone remembered. “The other days we ran in the woods or on a golf course, nice and easy. Sometimes we’d pick up the pace for a short distance. We called them fartlek runs.”
Stone said that much of the preparation he did for the Olympics was brand new for him and in many ways experimental.
“I was the first person I knew to do two workouts a day,” Stone said. “I might do a hard run at lunchtime and then an easy run after work. I would hear what other guys were doing and then try to see what worked best for me.”
Besides Stone, five otherPennStateathletes competed for TeamUSAin ’48, including Stone’s track teammates Barney Ewell and Herm Goffberg, and three gymnastics team members. Another Penn State teammate, Horace Ashenfelter, finished 19 seconds back of Stone at the Olympic Trials and failed to make the 1948 team but came back to win the gold medal in the 3,000 meter steeplechase at the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki.
Stone remembers that his living accommodations in the Olympic Village were modest but adequate for the athletes staying there.
“We stayed at an Air Force base inLondon, living in the officers’ quarters,” Stone said. “There were eight or ten of us in a room. They put the distance runners together. It was a great way to exchange training ideas.”
Stone’s Olympic coach was Dean Cromwell of theUniversityofSouthern California.
Cromwell had high hopes that either Stone or Jerry Thompson of theUniversityofTexasmight place in the 5,000 meters.
Stone actually placed third in his qualifying heat with a time of 14:58.6 just inches behind Evert Nyberg of Sweden (14:58.2) and Vaino Koskela of Finland (14:58.3) and 16 seconds ahead of Marcel Vandewattyne of Belgium to advance to the Olympic Finals. He called that a thrill but certainly not a surprise.
“I had travelled toEuropein ’47 to run in track meets,” Stone explained. “I had met a lot of the foreign athletes. I felt I was good enough to compete on the world stage. I belonged there.”
The 1948 5,000 meter finals was held inLondon’s Wembley Stadium in front of 83,000 spectators on Aug. 2.
Stone said that the big crowd is not a factor during competition. “The race is the thing; I never cared about the spectators. I will say, though, that the British are great track fans.”
Stone toed the starting line with eleven of the top runners the world had to offer. While the setting may have been ideal, Stone remembers that the weather was definitely not.
“There was a tremendous rainstorm right before the race started,” Stone said. “It was a dirt track and my glasses were covered with mud. I couldn’t see anything. My plan was to stay with the leaders early on but I couldn’t see where they were. The rain actually helped clear off my glasses but by then the leaders had opened up a big gap.”
Stone concedes that the weather played no factor in his being out of medal contention but he believes the poor conditions could have cost him one or two places.
He wrote his fellow staffers of the Centre Daily Times the day after the race, “If it had been a hard track my time would have been 10 to 20 seconds better. My spikes were a little muddy and I couldn’t sprint at the finish because of the track conditions.”
Sixty-four years later Stone concedes, “The top three guys were better than I was; I couldn’t have beaten them.”
But, he added, “I did think a fifth or even fourth place finish was possible. It was definitely a different race because of the rain. That was one of the worst storms I’ve ever seen.”
As it stood, Stone’s finishing time that day inLondonwas 14:39.4. He placed sixth out of twelve runners, scoring one point for theU.S.team. He came in 22 seconds behind gold medal winner Gaston Reiff ofBelgium, who held off a furious late surge from Czechoslovakian great Emil Zatopek.
Willem Slijkhuis of theNetherlandsran to a third-place finish to earn the bronze medal.
Stone ran his first mile inLondonin4:35and crossed the two-mile mark in9:20. After the race Stone’s college coach, Chick Werner, called Stone’s performance “wonderful, better than anyone expected.”
Coach Werner noted that at the time there were less than a half dozen men in theUnited Stateswho could run under9:20for two miles.
While his placing may not have been what he had hoped for, Stone’s Olympic run was nonetheless a remarkable achievement.
Perhaps even more important are the relationships he developed with his fellow athletes, many of whom became good friends. Among this group of friends Stone made inLondonwere Boston Marathon legend Johnny Kelley and Zatopek himself.
“Zatopek was a very gregarious guy,” Stone said of his foe who would go on to win three gold medals at the 1952 Olympics. “His English was pretty good. He was actually my locker-mate at the stadium. I remember him complaining about his blisters on his feet.”
Stone did not return home immediately following the Olympics. He stayed inEuropefor almost three weeks to compete in aBritish Empirevs.Americatrack exhibition inLondon, followed by another meet inPariswhere he outran the French, and then toPraguefor another exhibition meet where Zatopek still had the upper hand.
When he did return home, he said it was to no fanfare.
“They didn’t have a parade for me or anything like that,” Stone said. “I don’t even really remember people making a big deal out of it. There was no TV then. People would have heard about my race from the newspapers but that’s it. I just came home, visited my parents, and went back to work.”
For Stone, life went back to business as usual. That business included his rigorous training and competing on a world-class level. With hisLondonexperience behind him, Stone was excited for other big races that lay ahead.
His running career was far from over, as was his mark as a member of theU.S.Olympic team, which he also made in 1952 and 1956.