The trailblazing former Olympian, retired coach, and scholarship benefactor helps students achieve for life.
He retired more than a decade ago, but former Olympic athlete and University of Iowa head track coach Ted Wheeler continues to train students for balanced, fruitful lives.
“Students have a bigger test to do after passing their final exams. When they come before my eyes, I’ll ask them, ‘How’re you doing, what are you doing, are you giving to others?’” says the UI alum, who earned a bachelor’s degree in political science in 1957.
Wheeler returned to Iowa City from the Chicago area in 1972 for a coaching job at the University, leading his team to several Big Ten victories before retiring in 1996. As benefactor for the Ted Wheeler Scholarship, he maintains an active role in recruiting UI students.
Wheeler broke stereotypes when he started competing in distance running, since African Americans at the time were pigeonholed as sprinters. He proved critics wrong when he became the first black all-American cross-country runner in 1951 and the first black American distance runner in the Olympic Games at Melbourne, Australia, in 1956, where he ran the metric-mile.
“As soon as they decided that I couldn’t do it, that blacks couldn’t do it, that’s when I decided I was going to,” he says. “It was a thrill, an honor to be at the Olympics, because four years before I had been told, ‘You can’t do this.’”
The former high school dropout wouldn’t have discovered running if not for a fateful trip to Evanston, Illinois. Wheeler had quit school at age 15 while growing up in Rossville, Georgia, and found a job 20 miles away in Lafayette. He took a break from work to visit his father in Evanston, where he saw some high school students running by and decided to join them.
“I thought running was a joke. Back then, no one pulled off their pants and ran down the street,” he says, remembering how the athletes’ shorts looked to him like underwear.
He ran with the students back to their school, where their coach asked who he was and where he studied. When the coach found out Wheeler wasn’t in school, he encouraged him to enroll. So, Wheeler started attending high school in Evanston and running track.
He applied to several colleges after graduation, but only one offered him a place: The University of Iowa.
“This university has always been sensitive to helping black athletes and recruiting them on its teams. For that reason, it has some of the most productive athletic programs in the country,” he says.
Achievement taught Wheeler to better himself, a lesson he’s passed on to generations, first through athletics, now through scholarship. Every year since 1996, two UI students have received the $20,000 scholarships he established, which is funded by an annual golf tournament.
Wheeler takes a hands-on approach with his scholars, helping them set life goals and become productive citizens who fully engage in their communities. He often cooks meals for his scholars and invites UI faculty to join them. When he has an extra ticket to a show at Hancher Auditorium or to a UI basketball game, he asks the students if they’d like to go.
“I want the scholars to think in terms of their cultural and political responsibilities. You can go up to your job in Waterloo,” he says, giving the example of a former scholar who now works in that city, “but you’ve got more responsibility to the town than just a job.”
Wheeler still runs 30 to 70 minutes every morning, even last winter with its record-setting snowfalls. He also travels the world, imbibing cultural experiences and looking up old rivals and athletes he’s coached to challenge them to a race.
“One of the problems with people is that they stop thinking, they stop using their bodies,” he says. “I don’t know if I’m insightful enough, but I know that when you stop using either one, they’re not going to work well. I want my body to be fit. I want my mind to be fit.”
Story by Po Li Loo; Photo by Tim Schoon.
Aug. 18, 2008