My assignment as a family history missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is to generate interest in genealogy — collecting information about deceased kin with an objective of having them linked into family groups that will persist beyond the grave.
I hope I can be forgiven this week for expanding the definition of family to include those who share our history and our religion. With the 2016 Olympic Games recently ending in Rio de Janeiro, I'd like to look back to the legacy that Utahns inherited from Alma Richards, a Parowan native who did us proud in the 1912 version of the international games, the fifth in the modern era. I wrote about him in a feature in 1995 titled "Utah Olympian leaped to global fame."
That Alma made it to the international arena in the first place is one of the miracles of modern athletics. Growing up in Parowan, a nice little town in Iron County but not the epicenter of the athletic world, didn't predict the hundreds of competitions he won, the records he set or the global acclaim that would accrue to him over the years.
What he did learn to do in Parowan was to run and jump. He credited this experience as the foundation that led to later triumphs. Typical of many "country boys" of his era, he dropped out of school after eighth grade. He dropped back in at age 19 when he enrolled at Murdock Academy in Beaver.
He competed in high school track and field events only once, representing Murdock Academy in Beaver. But in that "only once" competition, he won first in high jump and shot put and second in broad jump and pole vault. That gave him status as the most outstanding performer in the competition.
Coaches had begun to take note. And a chance meeting with a University of Michigan professor convinced Alma that he should look at higher education as a route to travel and other niceties of life. He enrolled at Brigham Young University, where he fell into the bailiwick of coach Eugene L. "Timpanogos" Roberts, who had the wisdom to look beyond a "country bumpkin" to a world-class athlete. He began grooming Richards for the Olympic heights.
Alma made the trip to Chicago to compete in the U.S. Olympic finals in 1912 alone because there was not enough in BYU's $150 donation to handle fare for Roberts. On the train east, Alma memorized the inspiring Rudyard Kipling poem "If" at Roberts' suggestion.
Arriving in Chicago, Alma went directly to Northwestern University and jumped 6 feet, 2 inches, just to work out the kinks. He soon caught the attention of famous Chicago University coach Amos Alonzo Stagg, who took the young Utahn under his wing and helped him prepare for the Olympics in Stockholm, Sweden.
On the boat trip across the Atlantic, Alma developed an eye infection and began wearing a floppy hat to avoid the sun. The cap became a good luck talisman for the duration of the games.
The competition was impressive. Among the 57 competitors in the high jump event was amazing American Indian athlete Jim Thorpe. But at the end of the preliminary rounds, Thorpe was out (he went on to a bumpy career in other sports, including football) and Richards was left to face his consistent competitor in Stockholm, German jumper Hans Liesche. Wiry and a natural jumper, Liesche was a daunting competitor when compared with the more substantial body mass Alma had to coax over the bar with each jump.
Facing this ultimate moment in his life, Alma did the thing for which he became remembered. In front of a crowd of 22,000 spectators from around the world, he walked to the edge of the field, dropped to his knees and prayed. He later recorded that this interlude "lifted the world off my shoulders" and restored his confidence.
Then he faced the bar, 6 feet 4 inches off the ground, an Olympic record. On his first try, he cleared the bar with an inch to spare. Liesche had the misfortune to begin his jumps just when the crowd erupted into cheering as the 800-meter foot race neared a tense end. The German failed in all three attempts to clear the bar.
Richards received his gold medal from Swedish King Gustav, who had trouble with that foreign word "Parowan."
Alma and Hans remained lifelong friends, corresponding for many years, according to "An Olympic Friendship: Alma Richards and Hans Liesche" by Larry R. Gerlach. The eruption of World War I scotched the Olympics competitions for its duration. Both men served in their respective militaries, hoping, Alma wrote, never to meet on the battlefield.
Alma continued to compete in other venues. The list of the events in which he placed, including many world class competitions, covers five pages of typewritten copy.
He didn't return to Utah, but continued to study. Many athletics insiders long considered him America's most outstanding athlete. He earned a law degree, but in the end chose to become an educator himself. He taught science in the Venice, California, High School in Los Angeles for 32 years.
We all owe our thanks to the Parowan jack rabbit chaser whose prowess, determination, humility and accomplishments added to the luster of our LDS family.
Twila Van Leer is a former Deseret News editor and staff writer who serves as a family history missionary.