Oct. 3, 2016
BELLINGHAM, Wash. --- -
Republished by permission of The Bellingham Herald
Until the United States opted to boycott the 1980 Moscow Olympic Games, Walt Schilaty was the owner of a dubious distinction. He was very likely the first and only U.S. Sprinter ever to be talked out of a chance at an Olympic medal.
And he didn't even get to do the talking.
Schilaty, who this winter will be inducted into the Western Washington University Athletics Hall of Fame, was dubbed "Mercury" by his friends in his college days back in 1932 and 1933. Understandably so. That seemed in keeping with what the Seattle and Everett newspapers had branded him when he was a star sprinter at Everett High School -- "the Everett express."
After all, the 10.0-second 100-yard dash he ran at EHS stand as the school record for 48 years until Ron Gipson ran 9.9 in 1976. Gipson went on to become the starting fullback for the Washington Huskies' 1978 Rose Bowl champions. Schilaty might have gone on to greater heights than that -- maybe even an Olympic medal -- except he didn't get a chance.
First, there was this little matter of the U.S. Olympic Trials Regional meet in Seattle -- and getting to it. That he managed to take care of.
"I hitchhiked," recalled Schilaty, now 69, retired and living just east of Everett. "I was almost too late to register for the meet, but there was a fellow there working at the meet named "Click" Clark, who used to be football coach at Everett High. He remembered me, and got me registered.
Just in time, too. "I went out on the field," Schilaty grinned, "and they were just then calling first or second call for the 100 meters."
Ah yes, The 100. Schilaty's specialty. Earlier that spring, Schilaty -- competing for Bellingham Normal School (you know it now as WWU) -- had won the 100 and 220 at the Tri-Normal Meet against Ellensburg Normal (now Central Washington) and Cheney Normal (now Eastern Washington).
So Schilaty stepped up on the line, wearing his heavy, heavy shoes and proceeded to dig himself a hole to push off from. Yep, that's right -- no starting blocks, no lightweight spring shoes. Hadn't been invented yet.
"The shoes we wore at that time were leather, with a steel plate in the front part to hold the spikes," Schilaty recalled. "I'm sure those things weighed a pound, or close to it. And we used to wear these heavy sweat socks too; now these guys don't wear socks at all."
As for the hole-digging, that was a matter of necessity -- and a little luck. "If you were fortunate, you got one where there was a solid piece of ground," he said. "After the race, they'd smooth it out, pat the dirt down, and sometimes you'd end up digging into a soft spot, and when you pushed off, your foot would slide right out. They didn't have things like all-weather tracks back then."
But Schilaty's foot didn't slide out that day. He won the 100 meters and the time -- 10.7 -- shocked everybody in the place. Everybody, that is, but Schilaty, who didn't realize then -- and didn't find out until many years later -- that his time was only one-tenth of a second off the existing Olympic record of 10.6, set in the 1924 Paris Games by a Briton named H.M. Abrahams. (portrayed in movie, Chariots of Fire, released in 1981)
"I had no idea," said Schilaty, whose 10.7 still -- 48 years later -- ranks as WWU's school record in the 100 meters. "It was quite a while later before I found out" just how good that time was.
But apparently, it wasn't good enough for the Bellingham Normal administration. Seems there was this money problem -- it was, after all, the depression era -- and it came down to whether a debater would be sent to a debate competition in New York or Schilaty would be sent to the Olympic Trial finals in Pasadena, and from there to the Olympics in Los Angeles. One went -- and it wasn't Schilaty.
"I wasn't too happy, but what could you do?" he sighed philosophically. "They weren't too sports-minded at that time." So, since Schilaty couldn't have afforded a trip to California on his own, he simply accepted the facts. No Trials finals. No Olympics. No hard feelings.
Even now, Schilaty -- whose name was actually Schlilaty, with the extra "l", but was changed because nobody but family members could seem to pronounce it - is less concerned with missing a shot at the Olympics than curious about what he might have done under modern conditions.
"I think more about what I could have done today, with all-weather tracks, light shoes, training conditions." He chuckled. "We never used to train ... we'd go down to the track, run a few laps, do a few starts. Sam (Coach Carver, after whom WWU's gymnasium is named) would call us over and tell us he didn't have enough money in the budget to buy blanks for the starting gun. It was like that."
Schilaty is over modest about his accomplishments. When notified by WWU Sports Information Director Paul Madison about his induction in the school's Hall of Fame, he "told him they must be scraping the bottom of the barrel if they were picking me."
Actually, Schilaty's name had been brought up for the honor before, only to be dismissed because he had never graduated. He ran for Bellingham Normal again in 1933, setting conference records in the 100 and 220, but after that left school to find a job. "I was too busy trying to make a living," he declared. "Those were tough days."
Ironically enough, virtually all of Schilaty's medals and trophies, as well as scrapbooks of his athletic successes at Bellingham Normal, were lost in a house fire in 1935. But then, he wasn't one to tenaciously cling to memories. "My son thinks more about this stuff than I do." He smiled.
His son, Buzz -- who competed as a distance runner for the WWU (then WWSC) track team in 1969, is indeed one of his father's biggest boosters. "I got most of my publicity in high school as being `Buzz Schilaty, son of Walt Schilaty,'" he said. "Boy, I wish I could have had the kind of speed he had."
Walt Schilaty grins sheepishly at that kind of talk. "It's like my wife told Paul (Madison) the other day: He's not so doggone fast -- I caught him."