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Bob Schul, a Singular U.S. Olympian in 5,000-Meter Race, Dies at 86

Growing up on an Ohio farm, Bob Schul battled asthma and allergies. But he loved to run.

He raced against his three brothers on the farmland and then ran the mile in high school and at Miami University of Ohio.

On a rainy day in Tokyo in October 1964, he won the Olympic 5,000-meter race, besting what was considered the strongest field ever assembled for that event.

Schul, who died at 86 on Sunday at a nursing home in Middletown, Ohio, became the only American to win Olympic gold in the 5,000 and did it with a remarkable sprint in the final yards on a muddy cinder track.

Going into the 1960s, the U.S. running program had been known mainly for its sprint champions. That changed with a pair of storied achievements in Tokyo.

Billy Mills staged one of the most spectacular upsets in Olympic track history by winning the 10,000-meter run. A few days later, Schul got his own gold medal.

Having recovered from mononucleosis and a calf injury and in superb condition from a training regimen emphasizing high-speed workouts, Schul was a favorite in the 5,000. He had gone undefeated that summer while breaking an American record in the 5,000 and setting a world record in the two-mile run.

“I had told the press that I was going to win the gold medal,” Schul told ESPN in 2014. “Some people said that was cocky, and I said, ‘Well, what should I tell them, I was going to lose the race?’ I was extremely confident.”

On a rainy afternoon, with the lights turned on at the Olympic Stadium and the mud kicking up onto the competitors’ shoes and shorts, Schul’s chances were in jeopardy entering the final lap. He had been blocked on the inside lane.

But he managed to drift out into open space in pursuit of the leader, Michel Jazy of France.

“At last I’m gaining on Jazy,” Schul said when he narrated a film about the race for Runner’s World magazine 50 years later. “He’s tightening in the shoulders. He looks back. He doesn’t have the endurance.”

With 80 meters to go, Schul continued: “I’m by him, fast. In the last 50, my legs are heavy, but it doesn’t matter now. Jazy gives up.”

Schul swept to victory, clocking an amazing 38.7 seconds in the final 300 meters.

“Asthma teaches you to breathe deep and slowly,” he explained in looking back on his career. “There were races when I was getting only 80 percent air intake, so I had to make the most of every breath. The Tokyo race came at the end of the monsoon season, and the rain cleared all the pollutants.”

Schul finished in 13 minutes 48.8 seconds, eight-tenths of a second in front of Harald Norpoth of Germany. Schul’s teammate Bill Dellinger won the bronze medal; Jazy faded to fourth place.

“They’ve been telling us for years we in America were softies and couldn’t win anything but the sprints,” Schul told The Associated Press after the race. “I guess we showed the world we could do it.”

Ralph Hill, who won silver at the 1932 Los Angeles Games, was the only American Olympic medalist in the 5,000 before Schul took gold. Since then, Paul Chelimo, who won silver at the 2016 Rio Games, has been the only American on the victory stand in that event. Mills remains the only American to win gold in the 10,000.

Schul won the national three-mile title the year after the Olympics with an American record of 13:10.4.

He was inducted into the USA Track & Field Hall of Fame in 1991, but the Tokyo Games were his only Olympics.

Robert Keyser Schul was born on Sept. 28, 1937, in West Milton, Ohio, where he grew up. His father, Willard, was a dairy farmer, and his mother, Katherine (Keyser) Schul, was a high school English teacher.

He developed asthma as a child, and he wore his grandfather’s World War I gas mask for protection from fumes and dust when driving a tractor on the family farm. He grew into a spindly frame, 6 feet and 145 pounds.

Schul interrupted his studies at Miami of Ohio to join the U.S. Air Force. In 1960, he was stationed at a base in Oxnard, Calif., where Max Truex, a former Olympic distance runner, was his commanding officer.

Truex introduced him to Mihaly Igloi, a Hungarian émigré renowned for training distance runners in the Los Angeles area, and under his demanding training routines Schul built endurance and speed.

Competing for the Air Force, Schul became an elite runner, then returned to college in the fall of 1963.

Although hampered by the recurrence of a knee injury after his triumph in Tokyo, he hoped to make the 1968 Olympic team. But he had an asthma attack in the finals of the U.S. trials and was sixth and last when he collapsed at the finish line. He retired from major competition after that.

Schul’s death was confirmed by his daughter, Robin Thurber, who said the cause was complications of dementia.

Schul married Sharon Hervey in the early 1960s. They divorced in the late ’70s. His second marriage, to Janie Krumholtz in the late 1980s, ended in divorce in the late ’90s.

Schul lived most of his life outside Dayton, Ohio, before moving to a nursing home in Middletown. In addition to his daughter, from his first marriage, he is survived by his brothers Norman and David; and two grandchildren.

Schul became a track and cross-country coach at Wright State University and trained track athletes at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, both in the Dayton area. He also gave motivational speeches and competed in master’s races.

A half-century after his 5,000-meter victory, his pride in winning an Olympic championship remained undimmed. His car’s license plate read “5K 64 GLD.”

As for the whereabouts of his Olympic gold medal: “Now you’ll make me cry,” he told Runner’s World. “It was stolen.”

Alex Traub contributed reporting.

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