From praying on an Olympic field to standing up for virtue and modesty, Latter-day Saint Olympians have let their talents and lights shine on the world stage since the beginning of the modern Olympics. Here are just a few of their remarkable stories.
Raising the Bar
When Eugene L. Roberts told Alma Richards that, with a little training, he could compete in the Olympics, Richards responded, “The what?”
It was just before the 1912 Summer Games and the modern Olympics had been around for only 20 years. A farm boy from Southern Utah, Richards had never heard of the Olympics, let alone thought of competing in them.
Named after two prophets—one from the Book of Mormon and one from modern days—Alma Wilford Richards was the son of pioneer parents. Born in 1890 as the ninth of ten children, Richards dropped out of school for nearly four years as a teenager. By the time he started high school at Murdock Academy, Richards was already 18. That was the year he tried track for the first time, scoring enough points by himself to win the Utah team championship.
The next year, Richards transferred to Brigham Young High School, where his coach, Eugene Roberts, recognized Richards’s potential and began training him as an Olympic high jumper.
Because the Olympics were relatively new, few local businesses were willing to sponsor Richards’s trip to the Olympic trials in Chicago, but Coach Roberts managed to scrape together $150 for the journey.
With a jump of 6 feet 3 inches, Richards clinched the trials. However, because of his relative anonymity, the Olympic selection committee at first dismissed his jump as a fluke. It wasn’t until Amos Alonzo Stagg, a member on the committee who had seen Richards compete in Chicago, assured the committee that there was no doubt Richards could jump that Richards landed a spot on the supplemental Olympic team, earning passage to Stockholm, Sweden.
Competing with 56 other athletes from 20 countries, Richards’s debut on the Olympic field wasn’t very encouraging. His first three rounds, Richards missed twice before finally clearing the bar on his final try.
Richards hung in, however, and when the bar was moved above 6 feet 2 inches, only three athletes cleared the bar: Hans Liesche, a German who had cleared the bar the first time every round; George Horine, a U.S. athlete who held the world record at the time; and Alma Richards.
Then the bar was moved above 6 feet 3 inches. Liesche cleared it on the first jump. Horine missed all three attempts. Richards—well, he managed to clear the bar on his third jump.
The bar was raised another inch. Richards took the field first.
But before jumping, Alma Richards did something unexpected. He walked out on the Olympic field in front of 24,000 people, took off his floppy farmer’s hat, and knelt, saying, “God, give me strength. And if it’s right that I should win, give me the strength to do my best to set a good example all the days of my life.”
With that, Richards leapt, clearing the bar by several inches. Then came Leische. For the first time all day, Leische missed his first attempt, along with the two following.
Alma Richards stood on the Olympic podium that day as King Gustav V hung a gold medal around his neck—the first and only Richards would ever receive.
Upon returning home, Richards made it into Cornell University. In 1913 he became the AAU national high jump champion and in 1915 he became the AAU national decathlon champion. By 1916, Richards was the best high jumper and decathlete the U.S. had to offer, but with the outbreak of World War I, the Games were canceled and he didn’t have a chance to compete again.
Instead, after the war, Richards attended Stanford for graduate school, then the University of Southern California for law school. Despite earning his degree and clearing yet another type of bar, Richards ultimately decided to become a high school science teacher.
Despite the end of his jumping days, Richards continued to raise the bar of his faith and personal standards until his death on April 3, 1963.