Reach for Olympic Gold on Route 66

Millions of people from around the world regularly watch sports like soccer, football, hockey, baseball, andbasketball. But every two years, even the most casual of sports fans are drawn to events like curling, swimming and diving, beach volleyball, bobsled and luge racing, and skiing and snowboarding.

The Jackie Joyner-Kersee Sports Center in East St. Louis is located right off of I-64, three miles east of the old Majestic Theatre.
Photo by Ron Clements

The Summer and Winter Olympic Games are a global spectacle. For two weeks, a billion eyeballs are glued to their televisions to see if their nation’s athletes can earn an Olympic medal. Several gold medalists have ties to Route 66, where seven of the eight states have produced at least one Olympic champion.

As you travel from east to west down the Mother Road, the first place you may encounter with Olympic roots is Hinsdale Central High School just outside of Chicago. Central has won more state championships than any other high school in Illinois, many of them won by the swim teams. Olympic gold medalists John Kinsella (1972) and John Murphy (1972) both came out of the Central swim program.

Another Olympic swim champion, Tom Jager, grew up in Collinsville, Illinois. Jager was a five-time gold medalist – all in 4×100 relays – between 1984 and 1992. Collinsville isn’t the only St. Louis Metro East city to produce Olympic champions. Track stars Jackie Joyner Kersee, Al Joyner, and Dawn Harper-Nelson hail from East St. Louis, where the local high school has had dynastic girls and boys programs since 1975.

After crossing the Mississippi River into Missouri, you’ll eventually wind up in Waynesville, where Dan Pippin was a standout high school basketball player. Pippin later captained the Gold Medal-winning U.S. Olympic basketball team in 1952.

No athlete during the modern sports era (post-1900) has accomplished more than the great Jim Thorpe, who grew up in Stroud, Oklahoma. Thorpe won gold medals in the pentathlon and decathlon at the 1912 Olympics before he helped found the National Football League. Following his NFL playing career, Thorpe played Major League Baseball, and later founded a professional basketball league for Native Americans.

Thorpe isn’t the only gold medalist from the Sooner State. Olympic gymnastics champion Shannon Miller, who led America’s “Magnificent Seven” at the 1996 Atlanta Games, grew up in Edmond and attended North High School.

The National Softball Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City has an entire room dedicated to the U.S. Olympic team. One of the more visible athletes at the hall is pitcher Jennie Finch, who led the U.S. to Olympic Gold in 2004 and was inducted into the hall of fame in 2016.

Traveling the Texas portion of Route 66 will take you through Amarillo, where Brandon Slay was an All-State football player for the Tascoca High School Rebels and three-time state wrestling champion before winning Olympic gold at the 2000 Sydney Games.

New Mexico isn’t left out of the Mother Road medal machine. Swimmer Cathy Carr, who captured a pair of gold medals at the 1972 Munich Games, got her start at Albuquerque’s Highland High School.

Pasadena City College has groomed several Olympians, including 1920 Gold Medalist Charles Paddock.
Photo by Ron Clements

Winslow, Arizona, can boast pole vaulter Nick Hysong, who left Sydney in the summer of 2000 with an Olympic gold medal. Hyson is the son of longtime Winslow High School track coach Cranston “Cranny” Hysong, who led the Bulldogs to five state championships over 31 years.

California may be known for sun and fun, but Olympic speedskater Derek Parra, who won a gold medal at the 2002 Sydney Games, is a Rialto High School graduate. About 40 minutes west of Rialto is the city of Azusa, home to an NCAA Division II school with plenty of Olympic glory. As of 2020, 14 Azusa Pacific alumni had competed in the Olympics. Five of those athletes earned medals with decathlete Bryan Clay taking gold at the 2008 Beijing Games.

Charles Paddock, who was known as the world’s fastest human when he won a gold medal in the 100-meter dash at the 1920 Olympics, ran track for Pasadena City College after graduating from Pasadena High School. Olympic gold medalists Inger Miller, Alice Brown, Joel Thomas, and Linetta Wilson are also Pasadena natives.

Beverly Hills High School has the famed Swim Gym and the swim program there helped produce 1948 Olympic gold medalist Wally Wolf, who was a five-time state swim champ for the Normans between 1945 and 1947.

Just before you reach the End of the Trail at the Santa Monica Pier, you’ll pass Santa Monica High School. Parry O’Brien, who was a gold medal-winning shot putter at the 1952 and 1956 Olympics, was a standout athlete at Santa Monica. O’Brien is credited with pioneering the modern shot put technique and was on the cover of Sports Illustrated in 1959. He was the U.S. flag bearer at the 1964 Tokyo Games and was enshrined in the National Track and Field Hall of Fame in 1974, U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame in 1984, and the USC Athletic Hall of Fame in 1994.

Ron Clements

Ron Clements

Ron Clements is a Wisconsin native and Green Bay Packers fan who married a Chicago Bears fan from Peoria, Illinois. Despite the rivalry, Ron and Patti make it work and have been living fulltime in an RV since March 2018. They travel the country in search of new adventures and love attending baseball games and exploring national parks. They visited all 30 MLB stadiums in 2018 and have taken their RV to each of the Lower 48 states. Ron is a veteran journalist of more than two decades and a summa cum laude graduate of East Carolina University, which he attended following his service in the United States Marine Corps. Ron has written for USA Today, Sporting News, CBS Sports, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Omaha World Herald, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Fresno Bee, the Montgomery Advertiser, and many other media outlets. The Sports Fan’s Guide to Route 66 is for anyone who has ever driven past a high school, college, or professional stadium, and thought, “I wonder what it’s like to see a game there.” A Sports Fan’s Guide to Route 66 will be in bookstores and online everywhere on August 3, 2021.

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