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The couriers got through
Alice Higgins
August 08, 1960
Neither falling horses nor broken bones daunted an intrepid band of modern pentathletes in the Olympic tryouts
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August 08, 1960

The Couriers Got Through

Neither falling horses nor broken bones daunted an intrepid band of modern pentathletes in the Olympic tryouts

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It is a pity, in a way, that nobody has to carry a message to Garcia any more, for the U.S. has never had so many athletes—pentathletes, to be precise—so ideally suited to the task. The military courier of the last century rode, shot, dueled, swam and ran long distances, and these are the feats that 18 young men performed with rare finesse last week at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio during the national championship and Olympic trials.

The best of them, 31-year-old Lieut. George Lambert of Sioux City, Iowa, Paris and Tokyo, wasn't expected to compete. Two weeks before the competition, his horse fell on him, tearing muscles in his chest and arms. But Lambert is a man of extraordinary determination. He entered the strenuous five-day, five-part test anyway, and he gave a performance that would have made Garcia proud. In fifth place at dawn of the last day, Lambert galloped home with the imaginary message and received a real one: he had won.

Normally, the ride is a first-day event, but because of a shortage of horses at Sam Houston it was decided to hold it last and allow only the top 10 to compete. The arrangement worked out beautifully, bringing the competition to a rousing climax.

If he stays in one piece, Lambert should qualify as the most unusual man on the U.S. Olympic team. The owner of a Ph.D. in psychology, he spent this last year at Waseda University in Tokyo studying philosophy. To get back to this country to compete, he volunteered to return to the army as a reserve officer.

Lambert was on the 1956 Olympic team and last year's Pan American and world championship teams, but it wasn't his experience as a competitor so much as his cool self-confidence that brought him through. Nothing flusters Lambert, and he is a master at undermining the confidence of his rivals, not that there was much left to undermine after the fourth event, the punishing 4,000-meter crosscountry run through rugged terrain. In the middle of the race there is a small cliff to climb. Ropes are strung down the side, and the runners, already painfully tired, grab on and haul themselves up. To watch them from the top is to view 18 distinct types of agony. They all suffer.

It is hard to say who suffered the most at San Antonio. For Bob Miller, the 30-year-old high school teacher from Seattle, the run meant the end of another Olympic hope. Miller had qualified for the Melbourne squad in 1956, but broke a leg riding during the pre-Olympic training. He did get to the Pan American Games and world championships, and was on the medal-winning teams in both events. But running is Miller's weak point, and in making an all-out try he overran himself, blacked out, staggered through the finish gates at a walk and collapsed.

Bill Vendl lacked the versatile skills needed to make the team, but on guts alone he would make anybody's army a good courier. Shortly after he started the 4,000-meter Vendl stepped into a hole, twisting his ankle. He went on, but the ankle gave way and he plunged over the side of a ravine, rolled some 30 feet to the bottom and fetched up against a tree. He staggered back up to the top and continued the course. Finally, five minutes overdue, he lurched toward the finish gates, barely able to walk and weaving from side to side. Instead of going through the gate, he fell through the tape beside it and was disqualified. Later at the hospital it was discovered that he had two broken bones in his foot (probably from stepping in the hole) and three fractured ribs from hitting the tree.

At day's end

When the run was over, Lieut, (j.g.) Bob Beck was in first place, and Lieut. Alan Jackson, the heavy favorite who missed the last team only because he was eliminated for cutting a control gate in the ride, in second.

"I'm going home and read Buddha scripts," said Lambert. "I think I need some tranquilizing influences."

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