"He kept a kind of low profile—not the kind of guy you would ever figure to be President of the United States. He was very nice and pleasant. Nothing struck me as dynamic or outstanding. He was no star. Steady, a plugger, backup." So said Nathaniel Heller, Class of '47, U.S. Naval Academy, speaking of his classmate and teammate, Jimmy Carter, 39th President of the United States.
This fall will mark an anniversary of sorts in Carter's brief, and unexceptional, athletic career; 35 years ago the President was a member of the Academy's undefeated plebe cross-country team, which The Log, the midshipmen's magazine, described, with pardonable hyperbole, as "one of the finest in Naval Academy history." The 19-year-old Carter wasn't a great cross-country man, but he was good enough to win his class numerals, as Navy swept all three meets held on its Annapolis, Md. course during the war-shortened 1943 season.
"He was always strong in the last 100, 150 yards," recalls Ellery Clark Jr., who retired last June after 38 years of coaching the plebe team and teaching history at the Academy. "He enjoyed cross-country. He trained very well. That team, including Jimmy, was one of particularly good camaraderie and spirit. He was an important member of the team."
The plebes began their sweep by trouncing Baltimore Polytechnic Institute 15-40 (the low score winning), with Carter finishing fourth over the course of just under two miles in 10:33, only three seconds behind his winning teammate, John Finneran. When asked recently whether he remembered Carter, Finneran, who not long ago retired as a vice-admiral, crisply replied, "No." Then he quickly added, "I don't know if that's senility or not."
That's not surprising. "When you run," says Heller, now an executive for a manufacturing firm in Caracas, "you don't have too much contact. You're always out of breath."
"He was just one of the guys," recalls Richard Yeatman, a retired carrier pilot who now sells real estate in Arnold, Md. " Jimmy Carter was just somebody I remember. Jack Finneran could have been President."
In their second meet, against Baltimore City College, the plebes' "camaraderie and spirit" inspired them to finish in an eight-way tie for first. The time for the entire team was 10:33, Carter thereby matching his effort against Baltimore Polytechnic.
"We all got ahead," remembers Andrew Sansom, a Navy weapons engineer from Glendora, Calif. "In the last half mile we decided to get together and screw up the record books. It was kind of fun."
"Some at the front waited until the stragglers came up," says Paul Beam, a helicopter design engineer in Indianapolis, adding that there was more to the tie than the fun of scrambling the records. "They were nice enough to wait so we could all earn our numerals."
Carter, who actually graduated in 1946 under an accelerated wartime three-year program, was one of those who received the gold 1947 numerals, which are traditionally sewn on the back of the Academy's blue bathrobes.