Elliott Denman 66, an Olympian and retired sports writer for the Asbury Park, N.J. Press, recalled the other day a restless night he spent in a Baltimore hotel room in 1956.
He had interrupted a vacation with his parents and brother to compete in the National Amateur Athletic Union 50-kilometer race-walking championship in Baltimore that also doubled that year as the U.S. Olympic Trials.
The championship, held Sept. 16, 1956, was also the only Olympic tryout held in the city for the Games to be played in Melbourne.
The 50K race is five miles longer than a marathon and has a reputation for being a demanding event. It's a straight walk and if a participant runs, he is instantly disqualified. Judges along the way monitor the race-walkers to ensure that no one breaks the rules.
The competition was brought to Baltimore through the efforts of Philip T. Jachelski, a national race-walking champion during the 1930s. A Baltimore police officer, he was later inducted into the Maryland Athletic Hall of Fame.
"It was hot and I guess we were in the Emerson Hotel. I remember we were near The Block and it was noisy and I got very little sleep," Denman said from his West Long Branch, N.J., home the other day.
That year, Denman, 22, graduated from New York University, where he had been captain of the indoor track team. Just three months earlier, he had competed in the first 50K walk of his life.
While a student at Taft High School in New York City, he had managed the school's track team, and only took up race-walking as a sophomore at NYU in 1953.
Denman freely admitted that he had trouble completing races even a mile long until he received some expert coaching.
"Under the tutelage of fellow walkers Henry Laskau and Bruce MacDonald, NYU coach Emil Von Eling and Pioneer Club coach Joe Yancey, I gradually learned to handle longer distances and by early June 1956 had finished sixth in the National AAU 40K walk in Cincinnati," he said.
Encouraged by the win, he thought he'd try the 50K Baltimore race - 31 miles and 120 yards - on a course that began in Patterson Park and extended to Sparrows Point, with Sparrows Point High School being the halfway point.
"My parents were my greatest fans but they thought I was crazy," said Denman, with a hearty laugh.
"Thirty-eight walkers started the grueling race, but only 15 remained at the end," reported The Sun.
"It was a brutally hot day and a lot of the other guys went out too fast. I was a little more cautious and kept to an even pace," said Denman.
"Some of them got sick and dropped out and suddenly I found myself moving up. At the halfway point, I was in 10th place, and when we came back to the finish line at Patterson Park, I crossed the line in fourth place. But fourth place finishers don't go to the Olympics. However, I was just happy that I finished," he said.
Finishing in third place was James E. Hewson, of Buffalo, a World War II veteran and champion rower.
Denman still remembers how shocked he was when Hewson, who had earlier won a 20K racewalk in Pittsburgh, turned to him and said, "Kid, you can have my spot."
"He had dropped out of the 50K to focus on the 20K, and I stepped up to take the opportunity of my life," said Denman.
After the Baltimore race, Denman and his brother continued on their vacation to North Carolina while his parents returned to New York on the train.
"Two weeks later I received my official letter and was off to Melbourne," he said.
Besides Denman, the U.S. 50K racewalking team included Adolph Weinacker of Michigan State and Leo Sjogren of Brooklyn, N.Y.
The 50K race was held on Nov. 24, 1956, and earned Norman Read of New Zealand the gold medal, with Weinacker coming in seventh, Denman, 11th and Sjogren, 12th.
"The chance to be an Olympian - on the most successful U.S. men's track team in recent history, one that won 15 of 24 available gold medals, an astounding feat - was unbelievable," Denman wrote in an unpublished monograph.
He worked as a sportswriter for the next 35 1/2 years for the Press and covered 10 succeeding Olympic Games.
Next month, he'll be off to Sydney, where he'll cover the games and file stories for Gannett News Service.
He remains active in the sport and served as New Jersey state race-walking chairman and an international official. He was also a founder and trustee of the Shore Athletic Club, one of the nation's most active walking teams.
He still competes in Masters track events and has race-walked the last 21 New York Marathons but confesses that age has slowed him a bit.
"I've slowed up drastically but I still cross the finish line and I'm still getting there," he said.
"However, that race in Baltimore really turned my life around. I'm eternally grateful to Baltimore," he said. "Whenever I pass through the city, I say, 'Thank you, Baltimore.' "