Q&A With John Bennett
Aug. 18, 2008
John Bennett, a silver medalist in the 1956 Melbourne Olympics in the long jump, won two NCAA National Championships in the event while at Marquette in the 1950's. Following his graduation from Marquette, the Grand Forks, N.D., native was drafted into the U.S. Army and continued to hone his skills on the track. After tying fellow American Greg Bell in the U.S. Olympic Trials for first place in the long jump, Bennett traveled to the Southern Hemisphere looking to break Jesse Owens world record which had held up for two decades.
Q & A With John Bennett
MU: Growing up in North Dakota, what was it that originally attracted you to Marquette?
JB: I had a friend from my hometown who was a law student at Marquette. He was very high on the school and he came home with an offer from track coach Bus Shimek for me to attend Marquette. Coach Shimek said that Marquette would take care of my books and tuition and I took them up on the offer because of the school's reputation.
I talked it over with my aunt because my parents had passed away when I was ten years old and I was adopted by an aunt living in Grand Forks, N.D. With Marquette's reputation and it being a Catholic university with Division 1 status, we decided that I should go ahead with that offer. I made a commitment to Bus and I never regretted it.
Coming to Marquette you were an all-state football player and the captain of your high school basketball team. Was it track from the beginning at Marquette or were you also interested in participating in other sports?
No. I know that they were prominent, especially in football at that time, more so than basketball. But, I had no illusions about playing basketball or football at 5' 8" and 150 pounds, it just wouldn't fit. I wasn't interested in any other sport besides track and field. That was my niche and that was where I would spend my time and effort and avoid getting banged up.
I had an offer later to do some kicking for the football team from Lisle Blackbourn (MU football coach, 1950-53, 1959), who was later the Packers' coach. I had done some kicking in my time and one particular day at Marquette Stadium, I just about kicked the ball out of the park. He caught wind of it and asked me if I would like to join the team on a full scholarship. I talked it over with Bus Shimek and he said "you're kidding yourself, you're going to get killed." He was right about that and I declined. I went on to pursue my plans to win the NCAA Championship in the long jump.
How did you first discover your talent in track and field events?
It kind of came up by accident. I was a freshman in high school and I discovered that I wasn't as fast as I wanted to be, so I probably wasn't going to win a letter as a freshman, which I really wanted to do. My brother was older than I and he was home after coming back from World War II in the Pacific.
He said, "Why don't we try jumps instead of running?" I asked him how it was done and he said, "You run down the path and you hit that board. You have to figure out a way to hit that board right and land in the pit."
He lined it up and after I jumped he went to get a tape measure. He said that my distance on that first jump was good enough to win the district title two weeks later. Winning the district track title would have given me five points and a letter. So thats what I did. In the first meet on the first jump I reached 19' 7 1/2," winning the district title.
What did you do to train for the long jump?
The key is speed and strength, as well as elevation and coordination. I ended up breaking my leg in high school my senior year and missed the state track meet entirely. Rapid repetition is how its done, running the 100-yards and 220-yards. My junior year I took up some high jumping and discovered that I was accomplished in that event already and didn't know it. At the end of my first year of high jumping I won the state title and set a state record. The second year of high jumping i had the highest jump, whether college or high school, in the history of the state of North Dakota.
In all, the offer from Bus Shimek came as a result of the high jumping because I progressed so rapidly at that, reaching 6' 2 1/2." Between the two jumps I had the offer from Bus. I think that speed is the key to the whole thing and you must develop a vertical transition. That is what I worked on.
When I got that down and I developed the hitch-kick (the running-through-the-air technique), which the jumpers still use today, that was the key. My goal from the beginning was to develop a good consistent routine that could win every time.
You won two national championships at Marquette in the long jump. Did you plan on competing further once you were done at Marquette?
By the time I was wrapping it up at Marquette I had already won two national titles and had the longest jump in the world, so I was planning on the Olympics long before I left Marquette. Bus and I had talked about that, so everything we did was centered around further development for that purpose. Everything was geared to finish up at Marquette and go on to another national title at the AAU meet and pursue making the Olympic team in 1956.
Was there any ever thought about participating in the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki?
In 1952 I didn't think I was quite ready. I had hope that by the end of 1952 I might be ready. If the chance came up to compete in the trials or get into the trials I would have taken it. You had minimum standards you had to meet, which I already had met, to get into the Olympic trials.
But I had a hamstring pull in the middle of the year and it almost took me out of competition for the whole season. It was that bad. That took care of the 1952 aspirations.
The funny thing is my jumps were better than the medalists at Helsinki. A year later in Helsinki at the same stadium on a tour, I outdid 25-feet. I sometimes wonder, could it have happened if I had been healthy at that time?
What did NCAA champion track and field athletes normally do following graduation in the 1950's?
At that time you went in the armed service after you finished college because the mandatory draft was in effect. I had anticipated being drafted when I started at Marquette but when I got there I got involved with everything on the track right away. I planned on enrolling in ROTC but Bus told me it was too late. So, I was subject to the draft and that was a two year commitment. Those who were in ROTC went in as officers, but I went in as an enlisted man and took my basic training like everyone else did. Then I was earmarked for athletics.
After Marquette when you were drafted into the U.S. Army, how did this allow you to continue training as a track and field athlete?
In my last year at Marquette with Bus we competed at Madison Square Garden and I was approached by officers of the U.S. Army. They knew my background and told me they would be watching for me because they wanted me to participate in the armed forces program leading up to the Pan-American Games in Mexico in 1955.
They picked me up after I had finished my basic training and we went to the University of Maryland and trained with a group of U.S. servicemen. I was automatically admitted to the team because of my background.
Could you briefly describe what you remember about the Olympic Trials in Los Angeles in 1956.
I had gone to the trials in Los Angeles in anticipation of making the team with the U.S. Armed Forces group. At that time there were six men who were 26-foot jumpers in the world. I was one of them, and all six of them were Americans at the meet. I was rated one or two, but when you are talking those distances anything can happen. The record at that time was 26' 8 1/4," which was set by Jesse Owens and he had held it for 25 years.
Bus Shimek had gone up to San Francisco the week before to deliver a speech to an international group of track and field coaches on the subject of the long jump. He was considered the premiere coaching authority on the subject because of what I had accomplished the year before. He contacted me and said he would come down to see me before the trials. I am glad that he did because it calmed me down. I remember we walked around the stadium the evening before the event and he told me to just relax, get up in that air and that I would be fine.
I tied for first with Greg Bell, who went on to win the Olympics. The rest of them followed us. The other member that made the team was Rafer Johnson, who was an outsider in the long jump and took second place in the decathlon. He eventually dropped out of the long jump so there were only two of us who went to the games in that event. The jumps that I did at the trials were the longest in a series of jumps ever performed in the Coliseum. And that goes way back.
The following day we were shown on ABC's Wide World of Sports and it came through to Marquette and my hometown at the same time, so that was a big thrill.
Greg Bell and I were also featured on a full page photo in Life Magazine in the next issue that came out. The upper half showed me jumping and the lower half showed Greg Bell, in what was labeled, "an unprecedented tie."
Describe what you remember about the games in Melbourne.
The trip was the first ever by an Olympic team to the southern hemisphere. We were flying in 250 m.p.h. DC-6s. We were seated backwards, we flew backwards all the way. It took 42 hours of flying to get to Melbourne. It was something else. The reception down there was fantastic, although it was primitive compared to today's activities. All of the chips fell in place, until the start of the long jump competition that is.
At the last minute I found out they would not reverse the apparatus that measures the distance, because we had beaten the devil out of that in the preliminaries in the morning and semifinals in the afternoon. All they had to do was turn the apparatus around and we would have had a brand new runway, unlimited distance and no wind. We had everything like that against us, running on the existing runway. They refused to turn it around.
Once you are on the field there is no one to help you and you are all alone. No coaches, no advisors, no nothing. I had no way of convincing them that what they were giving up was a world record, which I felt was a possibility. Between (Greg) Bell and I we could have set a world record.
I was favored by many to win that event. I was first up and I was taking off my sweatpants on the runway and I tripped, stumbled and drove the spikes of my left shoe into my right calf on my take-off leg. I almost sunk it in all the way. I just about died. I thought "What am I going to do now?" I continued to take off my warm-ups and I thought that if I did not take that jump immediately I would have been tied up in knots.
I ran along the side of the fence, up the ramp and onto the runway to get ready to go. Boy, somebody was with me that day because I hit that board perfectly. I took off and got my 25' 2 1/4," which held for second place all the way through. I sat out the last three jumps and I couldn't even walk the following day.
Aside from that calamity, the village was barely finished when we got there. It was sufficient but nothing fancy. The medal ceremonies were very unique, in that they played the national anthem for all three of the medalists. So as a silver medalists I got to hear my own national anthem, now they don't do that. That was special.
For many years I was bitter that things had gone so badly. But I realized that it was a good life experience if anything. Instead of being bitter I realized that I should be thankful that I came home with a medal. If I hadn't hit that board just right I could have come home with nothing. I was lucky and very thankful that it happened the way it did.
Did you feel like if you hadn't injured yourself you could have walked away with a gold medal?
I felt confident that I could. I always felt confident because of the way I had trained over the years. I had one meeting with Meredith Gourdine, who placed second in Helsinki in '52. We talked together, almost on his death bed. He encouraged me to continue and congratulated me on what I had done. He told me "You are the one who got it right."
He had always been a model for me. I had watched him and his kick-style when I was practicing. He said that "Everyone has followed your model." The jumps you see today are just exactly the way I preformed mine with the 'running-in-the-air form.'
What did you take away from your experience in Melbourne?
It is a living experience. You can't go through something like that without being impacted by it. There would have been nothing better than to come home with a gold. It was such a disappointment to miss it. There is nothing to substitute for a gold. You never hear anybody say, "Go for the Silver!"
That is unfortunate because there are so many people who have nothing. Not many people have even gotten medals in the 110 years or so that [the modern Olympic Games] have been happening.
It has been a phenomenal privilege to have been an Olympic medalist. You come out of the experience a better person. The key is hard work. It was a once-in-a-lifetime shot. I had to work hard for everything. I feel blessed that it happened the way it did.
Note: Those in Milwaukee who are interested in learning more about Bennett and fellow Marquette Olympians John Brennan and Ralph Metcalfe can view an exhibit dedicated to the three in the lobby of the Raynor Memorial Libraries on Marquette's campus.
In addition to photographs and information about each, the exhibit features a four minute video produced by the Instructional Media Center on Metcalfe. The exhibit will appear in the lobby until Monday, Aug. 25.