“Faith Won the Steeplechase,” Ensign, Oct. 1974, 39–41
Three days before the Michigan state track meet, Bob Richards, high school senior, was in bed with the flu. He had won the state championship in cross-country running and was a strong favorite to capture the mile crown; but now his chances looked slim.
“How could this happen to me?” he thought. “I have tried to do my best.” Being active in church and school activities, and having great love for his family, he very badly wanted to represent them all in this track meet.
“There are real benefits in track,” reminisces Captain Robert L. Richards, now a jet pilot instructor in the United States Air Force. “It can help you know yourself, meet other people, obtain an education, and travel worldwide. But the greatest benefit is in learning to discipline your body, mind, heart, and soul.”
During that high school experience, Bob remembered the power of the priesthood and asked his father for a blessing. He considered the blessing a challenge.
“My father didn’t ask that I have victory the next day. He simply asked that I be blessed with health and strength to do my best, and that, whatever the outcome, I might grow from the experience.
“That night, thinking about the blessing, I knew I couldn’t grow if I didn’t compete, so the next morning we were off to the meet at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor.
“I was planning big once again and started jogging. But after a few minutes I was weak and dizzy. I had to lie down under the stadium and stay out of the sun.
“Just before the race, I began my final warm-up, still feeling the effects of the flu, but feeling stronger. In the lineup, my body seemed to shake from excitement and the pounding of my heart. The gun fired. We were off.
“‘Relax,’ I told myself. ‘Don’t take the lead, you’re too weak. Just hold on. Keep the pace and follow the pack.’ That went well for three-quarters of a mile, and then, with a lap to go, I still had strength! I knew I had to make a move soon, so with 300 yards to go I started to pick up the pace. I could hardly believe it when I took over the lead. Now it was the final turn, the home stretch, the finish line—I was state champion—and still running a fever! My happiness knew no bounds that day. But best of all, I had gained understanding of a simple principle: through faith and effort, one can be strengthened and guided.”
The athlete elected to attend Brigham Young University, and there, in 1966, Coach Clarence Robison decided to have his track team compete in the U.S. Track and Field Federation Championships at Terre Haute, Indiana, as a warm-up for the National Collegiate Athletic Association championships the following week.
“This was my third time to compete in the steeplechase,” says Bob, “and it was quite a race. At this point I couldn’t judge the distance or keep my pace over the hurdles, so I had to chop my steps, lose momentum, then jump straight up and down over them. To make up for this loss of time, I ran my heart out between hurdles. With a lap and a half to go, I struck my right knee on a hurdle. Within minutes it had swollen and was beginning to lock up. I kept going, and won, but the doctor said I could not run again for at least a month.
“That hit me so hard, I couldn’t believe it. As far as I was concerned, running the Federation race or even receiving their championship crown was not worth it for me. The important meet was the NCAA—that was what it was all about. I was so heartsick I didn’t know what to do. I can still remember the disappointment on Coach Robison’s face when the doctor gave him the news. He couldn’t just grab another athlete from the squad to take my place. We were far from home and no one else had qualified for the NCAA.
“The next day was Sunday, and since there was no Latter-day Saint Ward or branch in the area, we spent a quiet personal day. I believe it was important that I spent that day out of doors in communion with my Heavenly Father, for it became one of the most spiritual days of my life. As I walked along the banks of the Wabash River thinking of home and the teachings of my youth, it came to me quite strongly that once more I needed a priesthood blessing.
“But being a university student seemed to make it more difficult to ask for a blessing. I don’t know whether I didn’t have as much faith, or whether I was just questioning everything. But one thing I did know, I couldn’t be a hypocrite and ask for a blessing just because it was the thing to do. I had to believe in it. I had to believe that I would really be blessed.
“How fortunate to be able to go to your coach and ask him for a priesthood blessing! Two team members assisted him, and that blessing, like the one two years earlier, was a challenge. The coach asked that I be a good representative of the Church, the university, of myself, and of my family. And then he asked that if it be the will of my Heavenly Father, I be returned to full health and strength and be able to compete. I had to find out my Heavenly Father’s will and act accordingly.
“Monday we traveled to Bloomington, Indiana. The NCAA meet was scheduled for Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, with the steeplechase race on Friday. Unable to run, I spent the next two days walking in the wooded countryside, meditating and praying.
“Thursday. Another walk, but to my surprise, hardly any pain. I just had to try jogging. Although it hurt, I could do it and keep control. I went into a full run. Oh, it felt great to move that fast! I was so excited I wanted to run and train all day, but knew I had to conserve energy.
“I will never forget that night. I ran the steeplechase so many times in my mind I couldn’t count them. They were for real, too, as I would be covered with sweat—and I won them all. What a relief when morning came!
“I planned to run the whole race fast and not leave it to a final sprint, so I asked the coach to yell when he saw me falter or when my competitors started gaining on me. I wasn’t going to look behind me, no matter what.
“When the gun fired at the starting line, it was the greatest thrill of my life. I started a little fast, then settled into a stride as I took the lead. My first hurdle. Could I do it? Yes, it felt good! I had form and could follow through. I kept myself alert, thinking every moment. With just less than a mile to go, I called out to Coach Robison, ‘Are they gaining on me?’
“‘No,’ he answered, ‘you look fine.’
“The next lap, the same reply. I couldn’t believe it. Then I thought, if I were the coach I might tell a runner that, even if it wasn’t true, just to keep him psyched up. Since the track was rubberized, I couldn’t hear or feel how close the others might be. So on the next lap I yelled, ‘Tell me the truth.’ The same reply.
“The final stretch. I picked up stride a little. The home stretch, the finish line—I was national collegiate champion! All American! The thrill was even greater when I looked back to see my nearest competitor coming off the final turn some 80 yards behind me.”
There were other victories after that. In the 1968 Western Athletic Conference championships, featuring some of the best distance runners in the United States, when Bob heard that the other coaches expected him to win the 3,000-meter steeplechase but not to even place in the mile and three-mile, his determination soared. He won all three. This was very gratifying to him and was considered by Coach Robison to be his greatest victory, for never before nor since in the history of this conference has an athlete won all three races.
In 1972, Bob lost his bid to qualify for the Olympics, although he was seventh fastest recorded runner. Of this experience he says:
“I have a very strong belief in God. He has helped me to gain the physical discipline and determination to succeed athletically. With this belief, losing won’t destroy me. The principles of exaltation and eternal life give unlimited value to self-discipline and dedication. With that faith, life becomes a pleasant challenge.”
Captain Robert L. Richards
has recently been promoted to Junior Officer of the Quarter at Williams Air Force Base, Arizona. He serves as Scoutmaster of Troup 459 and as deacons quorum adviser in Mesa 24th Ward, Mesa Arizona South Stake. He and his wife Argene have two children.