The Valley Olympians: A Legacy
Tonight, the San Joaquin Valley will get a chance to see their three native athletes march in with Team USA for the opening ceremony of the 30th Olympiad in London.
1. Tommie Smith, track and field.
Oddly enough, Tommie Smith is not known for his on-field accomplishments. Instead, he’s known for what he did on the podium of the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City.
While Tommie Smith was born in Clarksville, Texas but became the track star (and later football star) in a small town called Lemoore. His pinacle year, aside from 1968, was 1963, when he won the 440 yard dash at the CIF track championships in Berkeley. Just before the famed Black Power salute, Smith had won the gold medal for the 200 meter dash.
Of course, it was the photo above that made him (and fellow US athlete John Carlos) a superstar far beyond the realm of sports. Smith and Carlos, of course, were suspended from the U.S. team shortly after the display for “politicizing” the Olympic Games.
To this day, the medal podium photo is a symbol of the Civil Rights Movement.
2. Bob Mathias, decathlon.
He earned the title of titles, and no it wasn’t “Congressman.”
The Tulare native was the last Valley native to compete in an Olympic games in London, which was held in 1948. Four months prior, his coach Virgil Jackson suggested he attempt the combined event. While Mathias had mastered many of the events, there were a few where he had little to no experience.
In his showing at the London games, Mathias endured a come from behind effort after nearly fouling out of the shot put component then almost failing to complete the high jump. Using his strengths in other events, he came back and took the gold for the U.S. and earned him the title “World’s Greatest Athlete.”
Four years later, he accomplished two firsts as an American athlete – he became the first decathlete to ever defend his title by winning his second gold medal in Helsinki. He also was the first American to ever appear in an Olympics and the Rose Bowl in the same year.
In 1966, Mathias would be elected to the House of Representatives as a Republican. He would later be unseated following the shockwave of Watergate.
3. Laura Berg, softball.
Perhaps second to the buzz behind Fresno State’s cinderella story in the 2008 College World Series was the university’s perpetual dominance in softball.
And second to former coach Margie Wright herself, none epitomized that more than Laura Berg.
Berg is one of four women in the world to have ever earned a medal in each of the Olympics in which softball was contested. But she holds an added distinction since she holds only gold and silver medals (the other three had silver and bronze medals).
The center fielder helped lead Fresno State to their first Women’s College World Series championship in 1998, marking the university’s first national championship.
During her Olympic career, Berg provided some much needed help in must-win games including driving in the winning run in the gold medal game of the 2004 Olympics and making a diving catch to save pitcher Monica Abbott’s perfect game in 2008.
This year, Berg, along with her 2004 teammates were inducted into the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame.
4. Rafer Johnson, decathlon. (Hat tip: Jim Boren)
Rafer Johnson, much like Smith, was a Texas native who wound up in Kings County (Kingsburg to be precise). Johnson played basketball, baseball and football at Kingsburg High but would be drawn to the decathlon after watching another Valley legend – Mathias – defend his title, taking the gold in the 1952 games in Helsinki.
While attending UCLA, Johnson competed in basketball under legendary Coach John Wooden along with the decathlon. Ahead of the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, Johnson qualified for both the long jump and decathlon. Just prior to the games, he would forfeit the long jump after suffering an injury.
In the decathlon, Johnson finished behind fellow American Milt Campbell and took home the silver medal. Melbourne proved to be a turning point for the Kingsburg High grad – it was the last time he lost a decathlon.
Ahead of the 1960 games in Rome, Johnson was in the middle of a heated rivalry with fellow UCLA star C.K. Yang. The two trained together and had become close during their time at UCLA. During the decathlon in Rome, the Yang and Johnson exchanged leads throughout event. While Yang was known to be better than Johnson at the final event, the 1500 meter, Johnson was able to stay close enough to win his first and only Olympic gold medal.