With so much television coverage of the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi this week, it seems natural to highlight an outstanding educator who was also an Olympic champion. One such chalkboard champion was Alma Wilford Richards, a teacher from Venice, California, who won an Olympic Gold Medal in the running high jump event in 1912.
Alma was born in Parowan, Iron County, Utah, on February 20, 1890. He was the ninth of ten children born to Mormon pioneer parents. The impulsive farm boy quit school in the eighth grade to explore the world. Not long after, he met Thomas Trueblood, a Native American professor from Michigan State University, who persuaded the dropout to return to school. Alma began his track and field career while attending the Murdock Academy, a private high school located in Beaver, Utah. He later claimed that his exceptional skills at running and jumping came from chasing jackrabbits in the fields near his home on the farm.
After a successful high school athletic career, the 6’2″, 200-pound graduate enrolled at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, where he met Coach Eugene Roberts. One day, the older man saw the lanky teenager playing basketball, and asked him to jump over a six-foot-high bar. Alma accomplished the task easily. Believing that Alma had the potential to earn an Olympic medal, the coach raised the necessary funds to pay for his student to attend the 1912 trials in Chicago. There Alma, an unknown, defeated American champion George Horine in the final, earning himself a berth as an alternate on the American Olympic team. Later that year, at the Olympics held in Stockholm, Sweden, Alma surprised the international athletic community when he won the gold. “Nothing ever will erase that memory,” Alma once recalled, “when King Gustav stepped forward to place the gold medal around my neck while the Stars and Stripes rose to the top of the highest flag pole and the band played the Star Spangled Banner.”
Alma graduated with honors from BYU the next year, and from Cornell University in 1917. Competing in the Olympics had boosted his self-confidence, and whereas he was once just a marginal student, his aptitude and attitude had skyrocketed. He thrived at Cornell, in the classroom and on the track, becoming a National AAU High Jump champion and expanding his repertoire to include competitions in the decathlon. By the time the National AAU Championships were held at the World’s Fair in San Francisco in 1915, Alma had become the national decathlon champion, finishing more than 500 points ahead of Avery Brundage, who would later become the head of the International Olympic Committee. Alma was, by far, the best American decathlon competitor and the best high jumper entered in the Olympic Games in 1916. He was favored to win two gold medals, but history intervened. Those games were never held; they were canceled when World War I broke out.
Throughout his entire athletic career, Alma won more than 245 medals and trophies in track and field events worldwide. As a 29-year-old soldier in World War I, he competed at the 1919 American Expeditionary Force Games in Paris, becoming the athlete to win the highest number of points in the competition.
After graduating with honors from Cornell, Alma attended graduate school at Stanford University in California, and then he enrolled in law school at the University of Southern California. He earned his law degree and passed the bar, but decided to pursue a career in education instead. To those who knew him, this decision came as no surprise. If it hadn’t been for great teachers, he always said, he would never have found his way. Alma became a science teacher at Venice High School in Los Angeles, where he was employed for 32 years until he retired.
Alma Richards passed away on April 3, 1963, and is interred in the Parowan Cemetery in Utah. The gifted athlete and remarkable educator has since been inducted into the Utah Sports Hall of Fame, the Helms Hall of Fame, the Brigham Young University Hall of Fame, and the U.S. Track and Field Hall of Fame.