Toomey recalls 1968 Trials, Olympics
August 21, 2008
Bill Toomey couldn’t find any remnants of the tartan track. The long jump pit and the discus ring were conspicuously missing. There wasn’t even a well-worn program stuck in the dirt.
Toomey revisited Echo Summit for the first time since the 1968 U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials.
Naturally, 40 years can change a lot.
“It’s a little different-looking these days. I was almost tearful looking for some souvenir to bring back home,” said Toomey, who now lives in Tahoe City.
There’s nothing sad about Toomey’s memories of 1968, though.
The highlight of Toomey’s athletic life unfolded at Echo Summit and subsequently at the Mexico City Games. He was the first Olympic qualifier for the U.S. at Echo Summit, then went on to set Olympic records in capturing the decathlon gold medal.
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His final standing at the 1964 Olympic Trials served as Toomey’s inspiration into Olympic decathlon immortality. Toomey finished a dreaded fourth in the trials, leaving him as the first man out since only three competitors qualify per event.
“You don’t get much in fourth place, so I went with my dad as a spectator,” he said. “I had never seen the Olympics, so actually seeing them added to my motivation to (train) another four years. There was more motivation as I sat through the opening ceremonies, realizing that I had almost been on the field in a cowboy hat.”
The Americans wore cowboy hats for the walkthrough during the opening ceremonies in Tokyo.
After the 1964 Games, it became evident that Toomey wasn’t only the best American decathlete, but the world’s best as well. Toomey strung together five straight AAU national titles starting in 1965, and he captured the 1967 Pan American Games decathlon crown.
The surreal 7,300-foot setting for the ’68 Trials at Echo Summit mesmerized Toomey, but he was ready for the high-elevation training and competition.
“I was right at home,” said Toomey, who competed at the University of Colorado in Boulder. “I knew that I would be better off at altitude than at low altitude. But it rendered a lot of guys problems. After training, all of a sudden, you would be on the ground, and you didn’t know what hit you.”
When he wasn’t training, Toomey enjoyed watching the entertainers at Stateline.
“I met Bill Cosby, Danny Kaye and Wayne Newton. A lot of them came up to the track. We were always welcome to come to the shows for free,” Toomey said.
While the altitude of Echo Summit didn’t concern Toomey, he was certainly worried about getting hurt before or during the trials.
“I knew I would have to complete the entire event schedule to make the team,” he said. “Anything can happen, a slight pull that gets worse. In some countries you don’t have to worry about the trials … if something happens, you take it easy.”
Besides being upset in his best event ” the 400 meters ” the trials went according to plan, and Toomey qualified for his first-and-only Olympics.
When it was time to leave the South Shore after a 10-week stay, Toomey and many other athletes became depressed.
“The town went out of its way to take care of us; nobody wanted to leave,” Toomey said. “It was a very strange feeling being downbeat going to the Olympics, which should have been our highest point emotionally.”
But ecstasy soon displaced depression for Toomey and many of his teammates. Outside of two connective days of drug testing and having to frantically search for his pole vault poles on the second day, the decathlon went smoothly for the first-time Olympian.
Toomey’s poles strangely weren’t located with his competitors’ equipment at the track. Without a source to track down his missing poles, Toomey thought he’d snoop around the distant warm-up track. Toomey jogged the half mile to the track.
He quickly checked inside several open doors, but the final door was locked. Luckily there was somebody to assist him, but he didn’t have a key. They eventually busted open the door, and Toomey’s poles were mysteriously located inside.
“I don’t know if it was strategy on somebody’s part. Why would they be segregated in that room apart from everyone else’s?” Toomey said.
As Toomey jogged back, he heard the meet announcer say that warm-ups for the decathlon pole vault had concluded.
“I missed my height twice. I just froze,” recalled Toomey, who came through in the clutch to clear 13 feet, 9 1/4 inches.
“I would have been the biggest loser in America (if I hadn’t made a height in pole vault), because I was ahead the entire time, except after the (third event), the shot put.”
Toomey scored a then-record 4,526 points on the opening day of the decathlon, and went on to win eight of the 10 events. He won the 100 meters (10.4), long jump (25-9 3/4), 400 meters (45.6), 110 high hurdles (14.9), discus (14-5 1/2), pole vault (13-9 1/2), javelin (206-1/2) and 1,500 (4:57.1). He came in second in the shot put (45-1 1/4) and high jump (6-4 3/4). His time in the 400 meters still stands as an Olympic record.
Toomey was asked to take a drug test on both days of the competition.
“I don’t know how my number kept coming up,” Toomey said. “I was ready to celebrate, and I had to go to the dope room.”
Toomey was selected as the Sullivan Award (nation’s top amateur athlete) recipient in 1969 and was inducted into the USA Track and Field Hall of Fame in 1975 and the Olympic Hall of Fame in 1984.
Track and field athletes were given very little financial assistance in the late 1960s, forcing Toomey, then 29, into retirement. He went on to market nutritional supplements, teach at Santa Barbara City College and at Santa Barbara junior high school and coach.
“It would be more fun to coach now. I think I would be a better coach with the wisdom of age,” said Toomey, who is considering returning to coaching in Tahoe City.
While he regrets not finding a keepsake on his last visit to Echo Summit, there is something that troubles him more about the most unusual trials site in U.S. track and field history.
“It really was a terrific place to hold the trials, probably not anything like that again,” he said. “It would have been a great legacy to have a regional training track at that site.”
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