by Wayne Baker
During the first half of the 1950's, few American runners could match the performances of Horace Ashenfelter III. While his most notable achievement was his unexpected victory over Vladimir Kazantsev in the Olympic steeplechase, Ashenfelter was also remarkable for his versatility, having captured 17 national titles in events as varied as two-mile and cross-country, with both indoor and outdoor titles.
At the time of his Olympic victory, Ashenfelter was an FBI agent. He'd joined when his running friend, Fred Wilt, who was also an FBI agent, let him know that standards were being opened to allow non-lawyers and non-accountants join. After leaving the FBI, Ashenfelter worked as a salesman in the precious metals business.
His Olympic 3000m steeplechase victory, in the world record time of 8:45.8, was played up in the press because with Cold War underway, the G-man running down a Russian made for headlines that were especially attention grabbing. This race won him the Sullivan Award as outstanding amateur athlete of 1952.
Born in Phoenixville, PA and graduating from Collegeville (PA) High School, Ashenfelter, who carried the nickname "Nip," had his collegiate career interrupted by service as an Army Air Corps fighter pilot during World War II. Returning to college, he graduated from Penn State in 1949. The Penn Relays 4-mile relay of 1949 was won by a Penn State team containing 3 Ashenfelter brothers; Horace, Bill, and Don! In 1952, in Helsinki, Finland, he was reunited with his collegiate coach, Charles "Chick" Werner, who was the Olympic coach. Ashenfelter again represented the USA in the steeplechase in the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, Australia. Horace and Bill are the only brother duo to have won national cross-country championships; Bill won in 1951, Horace in 1955 and 1956.
His Olympic 3000m steeplechase victory, in the world record time of 8:45.8, was played up in the press because the Cold War had gotten underway and the FBI and Russian made for headlines that were especially attention grabbing. This race won him the Sullivan Award as outstanding amateur athlete of 1952.
Ashenfelter is known for being a gracious gentleman. A story circulates of a young runner from a neighboring town showing up at his door on a bicycle perhaps 40 years ago. Ashenfelter shared some words of encouragement and the kid left more motivated to run well. That kid, whose name was Tom Fleming, grew up to be a fine runner, winning the New York City Marathon twice in the 1970's and had numerous high finishes at both New York and Boston.
Today, Ashenfelter, who, despite having passed his eightieth birthday still moves with the grace of an athlete, lives in northern New Jersey and is an avid golfer. A race named in his honor is held every Thanksgiving Day. Ashenfelter has been honored by induction into the National Track and Field Hall of Fame and by having the indoor track at Penn State named after him.
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