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Interview with American Olympic Sprinter Mel Pender

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Mel Pender was an American sprinter who competed in the 1964 and 1968 Olympic Games. His unique claim to fame was his status as an active, wartime soldier who was pulled out of Vietnam to train for Olympic competition, then won a gold medal in the 4 x 100-meter relay in 1968. He and teammates Charles Greene, Ronnie Ray Smith and Jim Hines set a world record of 38.19 seconds in the event. Pender also competed in the 100 meters, finishing sixth in both 1964 and ‛68.

I interviewed Pender, who retired from the Army with the rank of captain, at the Shumake Relays in Detroit in the spring of 2008, shortly before Pender attended a reunion of the 1968 Olympic team. The 1968 Games and the U.S. team were much on his mind as he discussed not only his running and coaching career, but veered away from the track to give his perspective on race relations in the America of the 1960s.

On being an Olympian.
“It’s like no other feeling that anyone could ever have, to be an Olympian. Especially if you come through a tough life and grew up poor like I did, it’s like a dream come true. I didn’t make the Olympic team until I was 27 years old, my first team. And my second team I was 31. But it was like no other feeling. I didn’t win a gold medal the first Olympics – I got hurt and they said I wouldn’t come back. But God was good to me, I proved them (wrong). They pulled me out of Vietnam for about eight months, I made the Olympic team in 1968 and won a gold medal. And they took (me) straight back to Vietnam. ... I was a company commander in the 82nd Airborne Division. They sent me back to the 82nd in Vietnam and then I worked for the CIA in Vietnam. And they pulled me out again for the ‘72 team and I didn’t make the ‘72 team. I probably could’ve made the relay team but I pulled a muscle, in Seattle, Wash. at the USA Track and Field Championships about 10 days before the Trials. I had no business running in that meet, but I had a stupid coach. Being in the Army, you’ve got a coach, an Army guy. If he says you run, you run. I didn’t make the team so I turned pro, I ran and the International Track Association ... where I set the world record in the 60 yard dash, I ran 5.8 seconds.”

On Army discipline helping him.
“Oh, it did. It helped me because I didn’t start running until I was 25 years old. I was in Okinawa and I won a Pacific championship in Okinawa and went to Japan. And at that time – that was in 1962, and the Games were coming in ‘64 – so I told some friends of mine, ‘I’m going to make the Olympic team, I’m coming back’in 1964. And that was like a fairy tale to make an Olympic team.”

What it feels like at the starting line in an Olympic final.
“You’re shaking in your boots, man. It’s probably the most scary moment of your life – ‘Am I going to do everything right?’ I’m thinking about winning, thinking about standing in the victory stand, being the world’s fastest. The relay team, I was fortunate to win a gold medal. I should have had a medal in the 100 meters, especially in ‘68. I was leading, after 70 meters I was winning the race and something happened, I don’t know, and I dream about it today – What did I do wrong? And it was all about me – ‘Mel Pender’s out in front ...’ And something happened. But in ‘64 I tore a muscle from my rib cage and I placed sixth in the 100 meters. But to come back and to make two Olympic teams and to do something that no other athlete has ever done is something that I’m very proud of my parents are very proud of that.”

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