Oct. 19, 2012
By Craig Chval Sr.
When he left the University Notre Dame in May 1971, College of Arts and Letters degree in hand, Rick Wohlhuter knew one thing: he wasn’t done running.
He wasn’t yet sure how he would put his Notre Dame degree to use. And he wasn’t sure what the future held for him on the track. But the two-time All-American wasn’t ready to walk away from competitive running.
Despite winning the NCAA indoor championship in the 600-yard run in 1970 and helping Notre Dame’s 4×1500 meter relay team to a second place finish in the 1969 NCAA indoor championships, Wohlhuter felt he was capable of more.
“I wanted to run one more year,” he says. “I just wanted to see what I could do.
“I felt a little unsatisfied, and I also knew as you age, you get a little better.”
So the native of St. Charles, Ill., joined the famed University of Chicago Track Club upon graduating from Notre Dame, to see where the year would take him. It wasn’t all smooth sailing.
“I kind of struggled that year,” Wohlhuter says. “I was a reasonably good runner, but I wasn’t a great runner at that point.”
Wohlhuter did manage to run well enough to qualify for the 1972 U.S. Olympic Trials in the 800-meter run. The ’72 Trials were held in Eugene, Ore., and Wohlhuter describes himself as anxious and hungry for success as he entered what might have been the last major competition of his life.
It was unusually warm in Eugene, which Wohlhuter felt was to his advantage. He qualified for the final, and the pace was very fast. Suddenly, one of the favorites took off, unusually early.
“I had to make a decision,” Wohlhuter says. “Do I go with him, or do I try to save something for the end of the race?”
When you’re competing to represent the United States in the Olympics, there are no timeouts, no two-minute warnings, no replay reviews. Wohlhuter had all of a split-second to make his decision, knowing that only the top three finishers would qualify for the Olympics.
He decided to break out with the leader rather than stay back. Dave Wottle, who would go on to win the gold medal in the Munich Games, set a world record of 1:44.3 to win the race, while Wohlhuter earned a spot on the Olympic team by beating a tight pack of runners across the finish line to finish second. Only four-tenths of a second separated Wohlhuter from the sixth-place finisher.
“It was one of the best decisions I ever made,” Wohlhuter says. “I felt that I could barely cross the finish line, but it didn’t matter. I talked to others, who all said that they shouldn’t have held back.
“That changed my athletic career.”
Wohlhuter ran very well during the Olympic tour leading up to the ’72 Games, and was considered a favorite to win a medal in Munich, but inexplicably fell during a preliminary heat.
Forty years later, he doesn’t engage in much speculation about how he would have fared had he not fallen prior to the final.
“I’ll never know, of course,” he says.
The immediate aftermath of Munich left Wohlhuter at another crossroads. Just as had been the case upon graduating from Notre Dame, Wohlhuter knew that his immediate future would include competitive running, although now as a world-class middle distance runner.
And while nobody will ever know how things might have turned out had Wohlhuter not lost his stride in Munich, we do know that Wohlhuter’s running career had already taken a dramatic turn at the ’72 U.S. Olympic Trials. He had arrived in Eugene wondering whether it might be the end of the road, and left firmly on the road to greatness. Wohlhuter’s biography on the USA Track & Field Hall of Fame website (he was inducted in 1990) puts it succinctly, calling Wohlhuter “the top American half miler of the mid-1970s.”
Following Munich, Wohlhuter broke the United States record for the 800 meters on two different occasions, and also twice established world records in the 880-yard run. He also set a world record in the 1,000-yard run, and won the U.S. championship in the outdoor 800 meters in both 1973 and 1974.
So impressive was Wohlhuter’s 1974 season that he was named the 45th annual recipient of the AAU Sullivan Award, which honors the outstanding amateur athlete in the United States. The award, which includes among its honorees Bobby Jones, Doc Blanchard, Bill Bradley, Carl Lewis, Michael Phelps and Tim Tebow, is based upon qualities of leadership, character and sportsmanship, honoring athletic accomplishment and those who have shown strong moral character. Wohlhuter joined another Notre Dame track All-American, Greg Rice (1940), as the only Notre Dame athletes to receive the award.
“That was a great accomplishment for me,” Wohlhuter says. “But it’s certainly nothing I was shooting for; I don’t know that it’s something that anyone can shoot for.”
By the time Wohlhuter received the ’74 Sullivan Award in the spring of 1975, he was shooting for the 1976 Olympics, to be held in Montreal.
“It wasn’t so much thinking about the next Olympics,” he says. “If you’re still competing and doing well enough, then of course you’re going to back to the Trials, which I did.”
Wohlhuter qualified for the Montreal Games in both the 800 meters and the 1500 meters, the last U.S. man to qualify for both events. In Montreal, Wohlhuter earned a bronze medal in the 800 and finished sixth in the 1500.
His bronze medal put Wohlhuter in the exclusive company of Olympic medal winners that includes his Notre Dame coach, Alex Wilson, who won four medals competing for Canada in the 1928 and 1932 Olympics. Wilson was a Notre Dame All-American, earning the distinction in the 400 meters in 1930 and 1931 and in the 880-yard run in 1931.
“We could understand each other very well simply because we ran the same events,” says Wohlhuter of his relationship with Wilson. “He was a runner whose abilities and interests were essentially the same as mine.”
Since retiring from competitive running, Wohlhuter has worked in the financial services industry while raising two children – Charlie and Mary – with his wife, Kathy. Both children ran competitively through college, which must have felt somewhat like following in Michael Jordan’s footsteps as basketball-playing offspring.
Wohlhuter offered his expertise when asked, always careful to respect the advice his children were receiving from their coaches.
“They both got out of it as much as you can, which is the most important thing, whether it’s in running or anything else in life,” he says.
Still the United States record holder in the 1,000 meter run – it’s the oldest U.S. men’s track and field record, dating back to July 1974 – Wohlhuter avidly follows the Olympics, comparing his times to those being posted by current competitors. He also pays close attention to other Olympic competitions, including swimming, rowing and equestrian events.
Wohlhuter, who ran a sub-4:00 mile after graduating from Notre Dame despite specializing in the 800, also played a supporting role in Chicago’s unsuccessful bid to host the 2016 Olympics.
“They did a great job, and gave it a great shot,” says Wohlhuter of the Chicago committee. “I’m sure they would have done a fantastic job hosting the games.”
Nearly 40 years after the height of his career, Wohlhuter remains a revered figure in the running world. He still receives requests in the mail for autographs and photos, but laughs it off with his typical modest demeanor.
“I found a few of the photos on eBay,” he says. “But they’re not commanding a very high price.”
As the commercial says, though, there’s only one way to describe Wohlhuter’s career – priceless.