Michigan Athletes have made Olympic history

Since they began in 1896, the modern Olympic Games have become the greatest sporting event any athlete can be chosen to compete in.

No matter how many national or world championship titles an athlete participates in, to compete in the Olympic Games remains his or her supreme ambition. Yesterday’s Olympians are inevitably tied to the Olympians of today. Every four years they can’t escape comparisons. The following profiles are some of Michigan’s finest athletes who participated in the Games.

Jamison ‘Jam’ Handy

In 1904, two years before the San Francisco earthquake and eight years before the Titanic hit that infamous iceberg, young Jamison “Jam” Handy earned an Olympic bronze medal for finishing third in the 440-yard breaststroke


Jamison “Jam” Handy continued to swim into his 90s.

Handy came to Michigan to attend the University of Michigan determined to win a spot on the football team. At 4 foot, 11 inches and weighing in at a heavy 86 pounds, the coach offered him the position of team mascot.

“We lived in the tradition of Coleridge and Poe” said Handy. “My family looked down on any physical activity; thought a writer had no right to health. My grandparents died in their 40s.”

“I studied foods. I heard about Johns Hopkins Hospital’s experiment with vitamins. This was five years before the medical journals began to have stories about the benefit of vitamins. I ate only fresh natural foods, from the top to the bottom. I had a motto. ‘Leaves to fruits, seeds to roots.'”

He came from a family of writers and was the youngest of seven children. His father, Maj. Moses Handy, was a newspaperman who later became managing editor of the New York World as well as a promoter staging the Chicago World’s Fair. Jamison inherited some of his father’s flair.

Handy is considered by many to be the father of modern speed swimming and one of the sport’s greatest innovators.

It was Handy who came up with new techniques for breathing, stroking and timing that revolutionized the backstroke, front crawl and breaststroke.

He was the first to put his head down and exhale underwater and he broke all records in swimming from 220 yards to a mile in the crawl stroke. He appled his genius for analysis to the cumbersome, inefficient double arm backstroke and came up with the single alternating arm movement still used today.

Handy went on to pioneer the industrial film industry, doing for Detroit what MGM did for Hollywood. It was Handy who sold corporate America on the idea of using films, slides and live Hollywood entertainment to promote their products and image.

He built the city’s first motion picture sound studio, and made the first Technicolor picture film and the first film biography (a two-reeler on the life of his friend, Thomas Edison).

In 1983, at the age of 97, Handy died at Ford Hospital. At the time of his death, Handy was believed to be the oldest living ex-Olympian.

Eddie Tolan

Back in the autumn of 1927, a chunky little fellow joined the freshman football squad at the University of Michigan. Eddie Tolan had played football at Cass Tech High School in Detroit. He had played the game so well that representatives of seven major universities recruited him to enroll at their institutions. He preferred Michigan. He knew the football traditions of Michigan. It was his ambition to play on the team and to make that team famous.

 Eddie Tolan gave up a football career for track.

Eddie Tolan gave up a football career for track.

The first day that the freshmen eleven engaged in signal practice he was in the quarterback’s position. By the third day he sat on the bench, watching another member of the group take the quarterback position. The freshman coach told Eddie, “Some of the coaches are disagreeing on your chances. Some of them think that you shouldn’t be allowed to play football. I’d be tickled to have you but I’m afraid I’m going to be outvoted.”

The freshman coach was outvoted. He lost his quarterback. They took away Eddie Tolan’s football uniform and handed him a track suit in exchange.

At the University of Michigan, Tolan, nicknamed “Midnight Express,” attracted national attention in 1929 when he set a record in the 100-yard dash (9.5 seconds) and tied the record of 10.4 seconds in the 100 meter dash. The 5-foot 7-inch Tolan, who raced with spectacles taped to his head, won the National Collegiate Athletic Association championship in the 200 and 220-yard dashes and the Amateur Athletic Union championship in the 100- and 220-yard events between 1929 and 1931. In 1932, he finished second to Ralph Metcalfe in the 100 and 220-yard dashes in the trials for the 1932 Olympic Games in Los Angeles. In the games themselves, Tolan set an Olympic record by an astonishing victory over Metcalfe in the 100-meter with a world record 10.3 seconds. Eddie was the only double winner in the games that year and the first black athlete to win Olympic gold medals.

In 1935, Eddie won the world’s pro sprint in Melbourne, Australia. In his track career Tolan won 300 races, and lost only 7.

Later he worked in the Wayne County register of deeds office before becoming a Detroit school teacher. In the summer, he was a volunteer coach of the Murray Wright High School girl’s track team. He was named to the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame in 1958.

He died at the age of 58, on January 31,1967. Eddie was honored posthumously as one of University of Michigan’s all-time great athletes at the university’s sesquicentennial.

 Dick Degener turned diving into an art form.

Dick Degener turned diving into an art form.

Dick Degener

Dick Degener, who made springboard diving something of a new art form in the 30’s and who was fondly described as the “Fred Astaire of diving”, competed at the 1932 Los Angeles event with U-M classmates, Eddie Tolan and James Cristy. Degener won a bronze.

As a diver, he was on the board 365 days a year and from three to four hours at a time.

Degener introduced the full layout in which his body seemed to soar, lazy-like and graceful in the air. This astonished the diving world and caused a buzz of admiration around the pool.

”If there is one thing I’ve gotten out of sports, it’s that I learned to be intense and to do the job.”

Dick never lost a diving contest in college during the three years he represented Michigan from 1931 to 1934 as he took the Big Ten and National Collegiate championship. In AAU competition Dick was unbeaten for years as he won 14 national indoor and outdoor diving titles. He climaxed his great career with his Berlin Olympics victory in 1936. Dick improved on his ’32 bronze win in springboard diving to win Michigan’s first diving gold medal. In 1971, Degener was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame.

Clark Scholes

Detroiter Clark Scholes, a 21-year-old swimmer and Michigan State senior, won the gold medal in the 100-meter freestyle at Helsinki, Finland, in 1952. Scholes told reporters he swam a ‘foolish race.’ “I went all out the first 75 meters and had to fight the last 25,” he said in describing his victory in the 100-meter freestyle event. “I raced it that way because I was scared.”

 Clark Scholes won gold with

Clark Scholes won gold with “a foolish race.”

What’s more, Scholes said he didn’t even see Japan’s Hiroshi Suzuki, who finished a bare 18 iches behind him. Scholes did his training at the Detroit Boat Club and also in the Rouge Park pool where the 1948 Olympic trials were conducted.

”He’s the finest competitor swimming has ever known,” said Clarence Pinkston, himself an Olympic gold medal holder in diving in 1920. “He’s always a racer, swimming just fast enough to win. No swimmer I ever saw could match his finishing drive.”

Clarke was also the first Michigan State athlete to win a gold medal in an individual event.

In a 1996 newspaper interview, Scholes, a retired manufacturer’s representative, recalled his Olympic feat. “It was the greatest thrill I ever had in my life. For one day, I was the best person in the world at what I did. You know, they play the national anthem for the country, not the person who won, but you can’t be there on that podium and not think ‘They’re doing it for me.'”

John Welchli

“John Welchli’s the most respected man on the Detroit River”, recounted friends from the Detroit Rowing Club.

 John Welchli didn't pick up an oar until graduate school

John Welchli didn’t pick up an oar until graduate school.

He earned the praise for his part in the four man Detroit Boat Club shell that won the silver medal in the 1956 Melbourne Olympics in addition to the 32 or so Canadian and U.S. national championships.

Not bad for an athlete who didn’t pick up an oar until graduate school.

In 1960, at the age of 31, and living in Jackson, Michigan, Welchli won the Canadian senior 155-pound singles championship at the Royal Canadian Henley regatta, representing the Detroit Boat Club.

“People talk about teamwork and timing”, said Welchli, “but no sport has them like rowing. In basketball, if you’re off a bit, there’s a second chance. None of that in rowing. A tenth of a second is an eon, and everybody has to do the exact same thing at the exact same time.”

Today, he is fondly nicknamed the “oldest living rower” and continues to be an inspiration to fellow ‘river rats.’ Welchli routinely advises students with ambitions for the best colleges to get into crew. Admissions officers, he relates, know the sports discipline, teamwork and insane precision.

Said Dick Bell, coach of new generation of recruits in a 97′ News article, “John’s a great inspiration to young and old, and a testament to the sort of rugged individualism most of us have trouble sticking to.”

Stan Stanczyk in 1942 lifted 300 pounds

Stan Stanczyk in 1942 lifted 300 pounds

Stan Stanczyk

The 17-year-old Stan Stanczyk in 1942 lifted 300 pounds, more than twice his weight, which earned him praise as a young “superman.”

In the 1948 Olympics he won the light heavyweight title with a record lift of 292 pounds. The judges awarded him the gold, but he protested, “My knee touched the ground.” The judges said he had to formally appeal. The American team thus appealed for the disqualification of its own lifter’s record. The jury so ruled and Stanczyk got a rousing cheer for his honest sportsmanship. However, a few minutes later he set an Olympic record for the same lift, the snatch, with 286 1/2 pounds, his second record for the day. He had won by the largest margin for any weight class in Olympic history. He also snatched the gold.

Between 1946 and 1954 he had won five world championships in three different weight classes, and six national titles in two weight divisions.

In 1952 he silvered in the light heavyweight class in the Olympics.

He retired in 1954 and turned to bowling. He maintained a 190 average for 25 years.

Norbert Schemansky

Detroit had sent two lifters to the 1948 games. Stanczyk’s teammate, Norbert Schemansky won silver that year in the heavyweight division.

Norbert Schemansky

Norbert Schemansky

Schemansky became the only weightlifter to win four Olympic medals. He won the gold in middle heavyweight in 1952.

On Jan. 15, 1955, The News carried a front page photo of the “World’s strongest man, the conqueror of the Russians,” as he passed the physical to become one of “Detroit’s Finest.” He later opted to train in case the Olympics called him. But he skipped the 1956 games due to injury.

In 1960 and 1964 he won bronze. In 1964 he became the first American to top 1200 total pounds.

He won nine national titles, and three world titles in different weight divisions.

In 1976 he finally was voted into the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame. He lamented the lack of recognition. News sports writer, Jack Berry wrote, “Ironically for a man who is 6 feet tall and weighs 260 pounds, recognition has been hard to come by for Schemansky in his home state. Norm says he’s not bitter but his words are contradictory.”

“All the others who went to the Olympics and won fewer medals have made it (into the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame,). One even got in for being on a relay team — that’s a quarter of a medal,” Schemansky said.

“I’ve got one piece of advice for (speedskater) Sheila Young — get as much as you can while you can because they’ll forget you fast,” said Schemansky.

Hayes Jones

Perhaps the world’s best high hurdler during the early 1960’s, Hayes Jones gained fame by winning a gold medal for the United States in the 1964 Olympics at Tokyo in the 110-meter high hurdles, the final race of his career. Jones was short for a hurdler but his outstanding speed, great starts, and near perfect technique made him the man to beat.

 Hayes Jones once won 52 consecutive indoor hurdles races

Hayes Jones once won 52 consecutive indoor hurdles races.

Born in Mississippi and raised in Pontiac, Mich., he graduated from Eastern Michigan University. Jones captured his first national title as a college sophomore in 1958 and went on to capture four more USA titles outdoors, in addition to the 1959 NCAA crown, despite several physical handicaps. Jones stood only 5 feet,10 inches and weighed 165 pounds, his eyesight was poor and his left leg was three-quarters of an inch shorter than his right.

Between the winter of 1959 and his record breaking run in 1964, Jones took 52 consecutive indoor hurdles races. Representing Eastern Michigan University, he won the NCAA title in 59, when he was also the Pan-American Games champion.

One of his most memorable successes came in February, 1960, when he won both the 50-yard dash and the 50-yard high hurdles on successive days in Philadelphia and New York.

In the 1960 Rome Olympics, Jones won the bronze medal in the highs. Four years later, in Tokyo, he won the big prize, the Olympic gold.

Following the 1964 games, Jones took a position with the United States Youth Games helping to build athletic stars of the future. In 1976 he was selected for the National Track and Field Hall of Fame.

For 18 years Jones worked for American Airlines, including manager of customer services at Detroit Metropolitan Airport. He also spent time as marketing director for Stroh Brewery. In 1999, Jones joined Pro Air Inc. as vice-president of community development.

Henry Carr

Henry Carr grew up on the streets of Del Ray in southwest Detroit. He went first to Detroit Southwestern High School, then switched to Northwestern.

 Henry Carr hung around with baseball stars Willie Horton and Alex Johnson.

Henry Carr hung around with baseball stars Willie Horton and Alex Johnson.

Carr ran track and played football and basketball. He hung with Willie Horton and Alex Johnson who would become major-league baseball stars. But young Henry was a rising track and field star. When Willie Horton hit his first major-league home run into the upper left-center bleachers for the Tigers at Tiger Stadium in September of 1963, Carr was running track on a scholarship at Arizona State.

Track and field was an amateur sport back then, and the athletes who participated did it for the love of the sport. He traveled the world, Australia, Africa, Japan, Poland and the Soviet Union.

Carr won two gold medals in the 200 meter and 1600-meter relay at the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo. “We got pressure from the president, the governor, school presidents, family members, “bring back the Gold, don’t let us down”, Carr said. “Then we had these black organizations that wanted you to boycott the Olympics. I felt it was unfair to put that pressure on us.”

When he returned from the Olympics he started a series of jobs that included playing pro football, working with inner-city kids, operating a deli, painting and landscaping, working as a janitor, real estate and preaching the gospel door-to-door.

He fondly remembers his running mate, Bob Hayes, when they were the world’s fastest humans and took their speed into the National Football League. Henry signed to play defensive back with the New York Giants, Hayes signed as a wide receiver with the Dallas Cowboys. Their teams were rivals, and they were rivals. “He never scored a touchdown on me” Carr recalled.

In 1997, 33 years after winning two golds in Tokyo, Carr was inducted into the National Track and Field Hall of Fame.

Sheila Young

 Sheila Young at the 1980 winter games in Lake Placid

Sheila Young at the 1980 winter games in Lake Placid.

In 1973 Sheila Young was the fastest woman in the world. She held world titles in speed skating and cycling. “I love the feeling of going fast,” she said in a 1973 interview.

Born in Birmingham, Michigan in 1950, she and her family moved to Detroit where Sheila graduated from Denby High School.

Her parents, Clair and Georgia Young, had competed in both speedskating and cycling and encouraged Sheila and their other children — Susan, Roger and Jamie — to do the same.

Sheila could skate at age 2, and ride a two-wheeler without training wheels at 4. Sheila’s mother died of cancer in 1962 and her father took over her training. They skated at Quarton Lake in Birmingham and on the frozen canals on Belle Isle.

Sheila missed making the U.S. Olympic skating team in 1972 by less than a second. She came back with a vengeance in 1976 in Innsbruck, Austria, and took gold, silver and bronze medals becoming the first American to win three medals in the Winter Games.

After the games she went on a tour of the Alpine countryside with her fiancé, and later husband, Olympic cyclist James Ochowicz of Milwaukee.

In 1981 after coming out of retirement she was named American Sportswoman of the Year by The Olympian, the U.S. Olympic Committee publication. She also made the cover of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes. But she chose motherhood over the competition and retired again.

Michigan's two members of the 1980 U.S. hockey team, Mark Wells, left, and Ken Morrow, flank Gov. William Milliken at the state Capitol in Lansing after the team's Gold Medal victory at Lake Placid, N.Y

Michigan’s two members of the 1980 U.S. hockey team, Mark Wells, left, and Ken Morrow, flank Gov. William Milliken at the state Capitol in Lansing after the team’s Gold Medal victory at Lake Placid, N.Y.

Mark Wells and Ken Morrow

Mark Wells and Ken Morrow played on the U.S. hockey team that took the gold in the 1980 games at Lake Placid in New York. The U.S. team defeated Czechoslovakia, Romania, West Germany, the Soviets and finally Finland.

When they returned home, Michigan Gov. William Milliken gave the pair each a scrapbook of newspaper clippings which detailed the team’s successes and a polished Petoskey stone, the official stone of Michigan.

“This will be a reminder wherever you travel…of your home and the enormous pride we have in you,” Milliken said.

St.Clair Shores Mayor Frank McPharlin declared a “Mark Wells Day” for the Lake Shore grad, gave him the key to the city and the citizens joined in the festivities at the Civic arena that featured flowery proclamations and toasts.

The pair had focused on only one thing, winning that particular game, and almost forgot that they had fans. They seemed surprised at the attention. Wells said, “I didn’t expect all of this attention. I guess I really wasn’t aware of what we had done for this country. I can’t believe how it’s brought people together. I guess people were so bothered by what’s happened in Iran and Afghanistan; they really turned on to us.

Wells’ Michigan Olympic teammate, Kenneth Morrow of Davison, near Flint, had played together with Wells on a few previous hockey teams, including the Junior Red Wings, and Bowling Green State University in Ohio when the school had one of the best hockey records in the NCAA.

Morrow turned pro in 1980 and joined the New York Islanders.

In a 1981 News article, Morrow recalled how his father would flood the backyard in winter.

“Weekends were the times I remember the best. I’d put on skates in the morning and wouldn’t take them off until I went to bed at night. The rink was 25 by 50 feet. My father made small nets for us. Later he put up four-foot boards and floodlights. He’d go out every night and flood it. He’d shovel when it snowed.

When we were smaller we’d cut the center out of the pucks so they wouldn’t be so heavy.”

Morrow and his New York team earned 4 Stanley Cup rings by 1984.

Steven H. Fraser

 Steve Fraser, America's first-ever medal winner in Greco-Roman wrestling.

Steve Fraser, America’s first-ever medal winner in Greco-Roman wrestling.

In 1984 Detroiter Steven H. Fraser became the first U.S. athlete ever to win an Olympic gold medal in Greco-Roman wrestling.

“I don’t know what it’s done for the country,” the Ann Arbor sheriff’s deputy said. “I’m just happy to be part of it.”

Fraser, a University of Michigan grad on a wrestling scholarship, recalled his eighth grade coach, Frank Stagg at Webb Junior High. “He put a sleep hold on me and said ‘You’re going to practice.’ With the hold he had on me, I had to go.”

Fraser also had competed in football, track and field, and wrestling. He won a national freestyle title in 1984, and the Greco-Roman style in the Olympics. It is unusual for a wrestler to compete in both versions.

He had spent about $10,000 a year of his own money to train, but he still was grateful.

“There are so many people who helped me. If I could cut this up (the gold medal), I’d give them all a piece of it.”

Steve McCrory and Frank Tate

Detroit produced two fighters who won gold in the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, boxers Steve McCrory and Frank Tate. Both endured the most difficult matches of the games and both won gold amid boos and controversy.

 Steve McCrory won, but not the way he wanted to.

Steve McCrory won, but not the way he wanted to.

McCrory, brother of boxer Milton McCrory, boasted before the fight of the physical damage he would do to Redzep Redzepovski, his Yugoslavian opponent.

“Something terrible’s going to happen to him,” McCrory had predicted before the bout.

But, according to News reporter Jay Mariotti, the only thing terrible that happened was the beating Redzepovski gave the 112 pounder in the last seconds of the fight. McCrory won but the decision was closer than he had wanted.

Fellow teammate and Detroiter Frank Tate endured boos when the gold medal was draped around his neck.

“I don’t care what the crowd thinks. Those people don’t know how much work I put in and how much I went through to get this gold medal.” He had defeated Canadian Shawn O’Sullivan in a 5-0 decision, one of the strangest in Olympic history. Even Tate’s coach, Emanuel Steward, admitted O’Sullivan may have won. The fearless Toronto slugger almost knocked out Tate with a flurry of hard punches in the second round. Tate took two standing eight-counts and landed only two good shots in the entire round.

But the bizarre amateur boxing scoring system made the judges rule that Tate had won the first and third rounds, and thus the fight.

Steward said, “Although Frank is my fighter, I kind of feel sorry for O’Sullivan.”

That 1984 U.S. boxing team broke the 1980 Cuban record for most gold medals by one team, six.

 Angela Ruggiero takes a victory lap after the American women defeated Canada for the Gold

Angela Ruggiero takes a victory lap after the American women defeated Canada for the Gold.

Shelly Looney and Angela Ruggiero

Shelly Looney of Trenton, Mich., scored the winning goal against Canada that won the gold for the women’s hockey team at the 1998 Winter Games in Nagano, Japan. It was the first time women’s hockey had been an Olympic sport.

Looney grew up in Brownstown Township and attended Carlson High School in the Gibralter district. She later moved to Boston to attend Northeastern University to play hockey.

Brownstown Board of trustees designated April 3 as Shelley Looney Day with appropriate festivities including a proclamation from Gov. John Engler. Trenton also planned a hero’s welcome.

On the eastside Harrison Township had festivities for Looney’s teammate, Angela Ruggiero.

After the win her sister Pamela, a student a Macomb County Community College said, “I woke up at four this morning to watch the game, and when they won I just started crying. My sister called 45 minutes after the game and said everyone is going crazy.”

Tara Lipinski

 Tara Lipinski at the 1998 Winter Games in Nagano, Japan

Tara Lipinski at the 1998 Winter Games in Nagano, Japan.

Tara Lipinski was expected to do no better than fourth in the figure skating finals at the 1998 Winter Games in Nagano.

When they put the gold medal around her neck, she became the youngest figure skating champion in Olympics history.

As a child, Tara played goalie on a boys’ roller hockey team and rode her also rode her Arabian horse. Given two weeks to decide which sport she preferred, she chose ice skating.

When she came to Detroit to train with Richard Callaghan, she was relentless and fearless. Callaghan, fearing burnout or injury, asked her to back off and enjoy her performance.

News columnist Bob Wojnowski wrote, “Who knows what pushes a champion, but skating people talk of Lipinski as the most driven performer they’ve ever seen.”

Tara grew up in New Jersey before her father was transferred to Texas. She and her mother moved to Bloomfield Hills to train and Detroiters quickly adopted her. Especially in heavily Polish Hamtramck.

She explained her decision to turn pro after the games:

“I’ve accomplished my dream. I realized after Nagano how important it is for me to be with my mom and dad and be all together and have fun and go out to dinner and really be a family again. I owe that to my parents and myself…I would love to go to the 2002 Olympics and try to win another gold…but I would feel a little greedy in doing that, especially to my parents who have given up so much…I don’t want to be 21 and not know my dad”

“My home base is now in Texas,” she said in 1999, when she returned to skate in “Discover Stars on Ice,” “but I’m incredibly devoted to Detroit.”

“I have something special, and skating has always been my happiness…For every little girl, I think who starts ice skating and then sees the Olympics on TV has that dream. Mine came true.”

(This story was compiled using clip and photo files of the Detroit News. To view images available for sale from our photo collection please visit our Photostore of historic galleries. )

By Patricia Zacharias and Vivian M Baulch / The Detroit News