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Denied His Olympic Dream 50 Years Ago, Dave Patrick Still On The Move

November 12, 2018
Dave Patrick still rises most mornings and goes for a run, often a 3- to 5-mile jaunt through Rock Creek Park near his home in Bethesda, Md.

Sometimes someone will pass him, and Patrick will want to keep up, the youthful competitor in him still bubbling to the surface. But Patrick has to remind himself that he is 72 now, nearly a half-century removed from his days as one of the top distance runners in the country.

Instead of running sub 4-minute miles, Patrick settles for times between 8 and 9 minutes and feeling pain-free once he is done.

"When people ask me, I tell them I run twice as hard and go half as fast," the Kenwood (Md.) High School graduate said.

Fifty years ago, Patrick was one of the top distance runners in the country, an eight-time All-American for Villanova and a four-time national champion in the mile and half-mile.

He thought he had achieved his dream of qualifying for the U.S. Olympic team only to have the honor taken from him through a process that was later deemed unjust.

On June 30, 1968, Patrick won the U.S. Olympic Trials in the 1,500 meters at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum with a time of 3:43.6, thus securing a spot on the Olympic team for the Mexico City Games that were to be held that October. Or so he thought.

In Mexico City, the Olympics were going to unfold in high attitude for the first time. Some on the U.S. Olympic Committee felt the September trials in Lake Tahoe, Nev., would produce the best field of distance runners to handle such conditions.

Less than two weeks before the start of the September

trials, the committee voted to throw out the results of the Los Angeles trials. The top three in Lake Tahoe in the 1,500 would now comprise the team that represented the U.S. in the event.

Patrick hadn't been training to run his best time in Tahoe. He had passed on running in championship races in Britain because he wanted to reach his peak in October at the Mexico City Games.

Now with no recourse -- his coach was not present at the committee meeting to speak on his behalf -- Patrick was on the starting line in Lake Tahoe feeling as unprepared as he ever had for a high-level race.

"It felt like being in the wrong place at the wrong time," Patrick said. "Physically, I knew I wasn't at my best. Mentally, I knew I was nowhere near my best. I remember being unsure of what to do or how to run that race. That had never happened to me before."

Patrick came about running by chance. At Kenwood High, Patrick was preparing to play soccer. But during a gym class, he won a 1-mile race by 200 to 300 yards with a time of 5:30.

"It was the first time I ever did it," he said.

Patrick's older brother, Leonard, a state champion in the half-mile for Kenwood who later earned a running scholarship at the University of Maryland, convinced Dave that cross country should be his sport.

For his first race, Patrick was surprised to learn he'd be competing on the Varsity A level. His brother told him not to worry. He could win the race.

"For some reason, I believed him," Patrick said.

The gun sounded and Patrick led the race comfortably from start to finish. A star and an Olympic dream were born.

Now, it was Sept. 14, 1968, two days before the finals of the Lake Tahoe trials. Still confident he would find his way back onto the team, Patrick wrote a letter home to his parents and enclosed $100 to put toward the trip to Mexico City.

But Patrick's Olympic dream was ultimately dashed. He did not start the 1,500 at the Tahoe trials as fast as he normally did and ultimately finished fourth in 3:52. It was the only race he had lost all year.

"I thought it was a travesty. It never should have happened," said Irv Hall, Patrick's teammate at Villanova who went on to win the silver medal in the 110-meter hurdles at the Mexico City Games. "Dave had won the event at the initial Olympic Trials. He had already earned his way on to the team. I thought what happened to him was really not fair."

Patrick had a difficult time dealing with the result. He stopped running for about a year. He turned down the chance to serve as an honorary marshal for the Special Olympics. He blamed himself for disappointing those close to him.

He taught high school for a year and then launched his career in corporate sales.

"There was no way that would fly in this day and age. It wasn't a fair vote," Marcus O'Sullivan, a four-time Olympian for Ireland in the middle distance events who now serves as the director of track and field at Villanova, said of the decision to throw out the L.A. trials and make Patrick requalify for the team.

"You'd have attorneys fighting on your behalf. It was an injustice. This is a respectable organization, the United States Olympic Committee, that let the system fail."

In 2008, at a Sheraton Hotel in Philadelphia, not far from the Penn Relays, there was a reunion of Villanova's 1968 powerhouse track team that produced five Olympians. Patrick helped put it together. Payton Jordan, the coach of the U.S. track team in '68, was present.

Jordan was not present at the committee meeting to throw out the results of the L.A. trials. Otherwise, it might have turned out differently. He was out of the country at the time.

During the presentation, much to Patrick's surprise, he was retroactively named to the Olympic team. The emotion came pouring out of him. Those who were present, including O'Sullivan, had tears in their eyes.

"I'll never forget Payton Jordan, at 91 years of age, telling me, 'There isn't a day that goes by that I don't think about the injustice that was perpetrated on you,'" Patrick said. "It was pretty touching."

For Patrick, the moment finally provided some sort of closure for a wound that might never completely heal.

"I can forgive. But I can't forget," he said.

Photo Credit: Courtesy of Dave Patrick

Issue 248: October 2018 

Originally published Oct. 15, 2018