In the fall of 1911, Alma Richards returned to Brigham Young University with the goal of going to the 1912 Olympic Games in Stockholm, Sweden. Alma was a twenty-one-year-old high jumper from Parowan, a small town in southern Utah. Before going to BYU the previous year, he had known next to nothing about the Olympics. Then his coach told him he had a shot at competing in the games.
“If you will train consistently for a year and a half,” he said, “you will make the team.”1
At first, Alma thought his coach was joking. He was naturally athletic, but he was taller and heavier than most high jumpers. And he did not have much experience or training in the sport. Rather than scissor kicking or rolling his body horizontally over the high jump bar, as most jumpers did, he would launch himself awkwardly into the air, curling up in a ball as he flew.
But he put his coach’s words to the test. He trained regularly and began excelling in local athletic competitions.2
His desire to excel in his sport led him to keep the Word of Wisdom at a time when the principle was encouraged but not strictly required in the Church. In abstaining from alcohol and tobacco, he trusted the Lord’s promise that those who followed the Word of Wisdom would “run and not be weary” and “walk and not faint.”3
In the spring of 1912, his coach told Alma that he was ready for the Olympic tryouts. “You are one of the fifteen best high jumpers in the world,” he said, “and one of the seven best in the United States.”
Alma Richards’s eyes hurt as he peered at the high jump bar. It was the third day of the 1912 Olympics. The sun over Stockholm’s new brown-brick stadium was unbearably bright, irritating an eye infection that had plagued Alma for weeks. When he was not jumping, he wore an old, droopy hat to shade his eyes. But now that his turn had come again, he stepped to the side of the field and tossed his hat into the grass.4
As Alma prepared to jump, his mind raced. There he was, representing his country at the greatest athletic competition in the world. Yet he felt weak, as if the whole world were resting on his shoulders. He thought of Utah, his family, and his hometown. He thought of BYU and the Saints. Bowing his head, he silently asked God to give him strength. “If it is right that I should win,” he prayed, “I will do my best to set a good example all the days of my life.”5
Raising his head, he felt his weakness slip away. He threw his shoulders back, walked up to the starting line, and crouched into position. He then skipped forward in a burst of energy and leapt into the air, tucking his knees beneath his chin. His body barreled forward and sailed over the bar with inches to spare.
On the sidelines, Hans Liesche suddenly looked nervous as he warmed up for his jump. Alma ran in circles to keep his legs limber. If Hans cleared the bar, as Alma was sure he would, the bar would be raised even higher, and Alma would have to jump again.
When Hans launched into his first jump, he fell on the bar and sent it crashing to the ground. Frustrated, he returned to the field and made a second jump. Once again, he knocked the bar off its pegs.
Alma could see that his competitor was losing composure. Just as Hans squared up for his final attempt, a pistol fired nearby, signaling the start of a race. Hans waited for the runners to cross the finish line and then prepared to jump. Before he could, though, a band began playing, and he refused to start. Finally, after nine minutes, an official prodded him to hurry along. With nothing left to do but jump, Hans bounded forward and threw himself into the air.
Once again, he failed to clear the bar.6
Joy washed over Alma. The competition was over. He had won the gold medal and set an Olympic record. Hans came over and heartily congratulated him. Others soon joined in the praise. “You have put Utah on the map,” one man said.
James Sullivan, an official on the American Olympic team, was especially impressed with Alma’s coolness under pressure and wholesome lifestyle. “I wish we had a hundred clean fellows like you on our team,” he said.7
Within days, newspapers across the United States praised Alma’s victory, crediting his success in part to his religion. “They call the winner of the great jump ‘the Mormon giant,’ and he deserves the title,” one reporter wrote. “He is a self-made athlete, and his winning of world renown comes after years of endeavor and a determination inherited from the men who established the Mormon religion and made the desert blossom.”8
One of Alma’s friends, meanwhile, teased him about praying before his winning jump. “I wish you wouldn’t laugh,” Alma quietly responded. “I prayed to the Lord to give me strength to go over that bar, and I went over.”9