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Davenport, Willie(1943–2002) - Track and field athlete, coach, military officer, An Olympic Legacy Begins, Domination, Chronology

time meter army hurdles

Anatural athlete blessed with a superb training ethic, Willie Davenport primarily taught himself the tools needed to become a world-class hurdler. A four-time Summer Olympic Games qualifier (1964 to 1976) in the 110-meter high hurdles, Davenport brought home a gold and a bronze medal in the event’s greatest showcase. After retiring from hurdling, he returned to the Olympic stage a final time in the four-man bobsled event in the 1980 Winter Olympic Games, shattering a perceived barrier to black athletes in the process. After retiring from competitive sports, Davenport revived his military career. Having served a three-year stint in the U.S. Army during the early sixties as an enlisted man, he accepted a direct commission in the Army National Guard. In a 21-year career as an officer, Davenport earned the rank of colonel prior to his death.

Willie Davenport was born on June 8, 1943 in Troy, Alabama, the eldest of seven children. At nine years of age, his family moved to Warren, Ohio. By the time he reached Warren’s Howland High School, Davenport was exhibiting ability in several sports, including basketball and baseball, but track soon became his sport of choice. Although he was endowed with sprinter’s speed, he became a hurdler by accident, replacing a sick teammate in the 120-yard high hurdles at a meet one day, then winning the event with the fastest time posted in the district that year. His talent was raw—consisting of merely jumping awkwardly over the hurdles, but he knew that if he learned proper technique, he would greatly lower his 15.8-second time. By the time he graduated, he had lowered his personal best to 14.2 seconds and won a state championship. Nevertheless, Davenport’s time was not so spectacular as to draw intense recruiting interest from college programs. After graduation in 1962, he entered the U.S. Army to become a paratrooper but continued hurdling as a member of the Army’s track team.

An Olympic Legacy Begins

Stationed in Mainz, West Germany in 1963, Davenport joined a local track club but found himself without a coach. Surprisingly, he began to lower his times while self-training. The next summer, he was brought back to the States to begin training in earnest for a spot on the 1964 U.S. Olympic team in the 110-meter high hurdles. Amazingly, Davenport discovered the key to his future success by watching television. During the final of a televised race, Davenport noted that pre-Olympic favorite Hayes Jones slowed down after clearing the final hurdle. Davenport decided to copy Jones’s form through the last hurdle but then attempt to accelerate through the finish tape. His discovery soon paid off handsomely.

Davenport burst onto the national scene when he won the Olympic qualifying race in New York City, upsetting Jones and suddenly becoming a frontrunner. Unfortunately, Davenport suffered a thigh injury during a training session just four days before the 1964 Summer Olympic Games commenced in Tokyo. Nevertheless, he made it to the Olympic semi-finals of the 110-meter high hurdles before the injury proved too big an obstacle to overcome against world-class competition. Afterwards, he returned to his post in Mainz and, though disappointed with the recent results, remained focused on improving. Davenport ended the season ranked number five in the world.

Domination

The following year, Private First Class Davenport left the U.S. Army to attend Southern University (SU) in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where he majored in physical education. Davenport tried football at SU, with some success, but it was only a short time before he again focused his full attention on his more obvious talent: hurdling. Surrounded by experienced coaches and coming into his physical prime, Davenport began dominating hurdling’s short-track events, setting or tying indoor record marks at 45, 50, 60, 70 and 120 yards. He won the 110-meter highs at the U.S. Outdoor Championships from 1965 to 1967, as well as the 60-yard highs at the U.S. Indoor Championships in 1966 and 1967 and again from 1969 to1971. Along the way, he won virtually every major championship race staged in the United States, including multiple wins in the AAU and NAIA meets. Nevertheless, his most famous race occurred during the 1968 Summer Olympic Games.

A severe groin injury sidelined Davenport for two months early in 1968 and his recovery was slow. He battled back, however, finally regaining his form in late summer, winning a 120-yard race at a minor meet at the University of Tennessee with a competitive time. Davenport followed that up by winning the U.S. Olympic Trials and, in the process, becoming the favorite to win gold in Mexico City. He easily handled the pressure and ran an Olympic meet record 13.33-second time to become the Olympic champion at 110 meters. He later said that he ran the perfect race that day, knowing from his first step that he would win the race.

A year later, on July 4, 1969, Davenport tied the world record with a time of 13.2 seconds at a meet in Zurich, Switzerland. He shared that record for one year, 357 days. By that time, Davenport had left almost no short-track hurdle mark untouched and won virtually every major championship. Perhaps his greatest accomplishment during that five-season stretch from 1965 through 1969, however, was that he had an unprecedented five-year run as the world’s top-ranked 110-meter hurdler, a streak that stands as the longest continuous one in the event.

Chronology

1943

Born in Troy, Alabama on June 8

1962

Enters U.S. Army as paratrooper and becomes member of Army track

1964

Qualifies for Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo in the 110-meter high hurdles

1968

Wins gold medal in the 110-meter high hurdles at the Mexico City Summer Olympics

1972

Finishes fourth in the 110-meter high hurdles at the Munich Summer Olympics

1976

Wins bronze medal in the 110-meter high hurdles at the Montreal Summer Olympics

1976

Finishes twelfth in the 4-man bobsled at the 1980 Lake Placid Winter Olympics

1981

Receives direct commission in the Louisiana National Guard

1993

Becomes track coach of the All-Army men’s and women’s track team

2002

Dies of heart attack in Chicago on June 17

“The Breeze,” as Davenport was nicknamed, graduated with a B.A. from Southern University in 1969 but continued to compete internationally for nearly a decade more. His first job after graduation was as a teacher in the East Baton Rouge Parish School System in 1970. He was soon hired away from that post by his alma mater, becoming head track coach at Southern from 1971 to 1974. He took advantage of being at the university by earning a master’s degree in education in 1974. He also made the U.S. Olympic team again in 1972, qualifying second in the U.S. Olympic trials, but finishing fourth at the Munich games. Despite a serious knee injury in 1975, Davenport regained form to qualify for the 110-meter hurdles a fourth and final time, again finishing second at the U.S. trials. At Montreal, the 33-year-old Davenport surprised the experts by taking the bronze medal with a very competitive 13.38-second time. He finished the season as the world’s third-ranked 110-meter hurdler, his best ranking since 1969. He wrapped up his hurdling career the following season, with a still-respectable number six ranking. In all, he ranked among the top ten hurdlers in the 110-meter event 12 times covering 14 seasons.

Davenport held several appointed positions in the city governments of Baton Rouge and New Orleans, as well as for the state of Louisiana during the 1970s and 1980s. Those duties, however, did not stop him from achieving one last piece of Olympic glory. In 1980, Davenport and Jeff Gadley became the first black Olympic bobsledders in the Lake Placid Games, as well as the first African Americans to make a U.S. Winter Olympic Team. In an event in which American teams had rarely fared well, the number one American team had a credible twelfth-place finish. His five Olympic appearances rank among the most by any athlete, and he was just the eighth athlete to appear in both summer and winter Olympic festivals. His notable career achievements and considerable longevity did not go unrecognized. Davenport was inducted into the USA Track and Field Hall of Fame in 1982 and the Olympic Hall of Fame in 1990. In 1999, Davenport was voted one of Louisiana’s twenty-five Greatest Athletes by the Louisiana Sportswriters Association.

The Military Beckons Again

In 1981, Davenport received a direct commission in the Louisiana Army Guard. He was an untiring advocate for sports programs within the National Guard and became coach of the All-Army men’s and women’s track teams from 1993 through 1996. Under Davenport, that team had an unprecedented four undefeated seasons. His later assignments included commanding the Oregon Army Guard’s 741st Corps Support Battalion in Portland and serving as chief of the National Guard Bureau’s Office of Sports Management in Falls Church, Virginia. He had risen to the rank of colonel at the time of his death. Davenport was returning from a National Guard adjutants general conference in Boise, Idaho when he suffered a fatal heart attack at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport while making a flight connection on June 17, 2002. He was pronounced dead at 1:39 p.m. at Our Lady of the Resurrection Medical Center.

Davenport was scheduled to retire from the Army National Guard in March 2003 and was planning to marry his fiancée soon after. Unfortunately, Davenport had not made his wishes known in the case of his death, which set off a squabble among relatives regarding where he should be buried. On one side were his former wife Marian and their adopted son Mark Davenport of Baton Rouge, while the other side included Willie Davenport Stewart of Youngstown, Ohio and Tanya Gibson Morris (who, like her father, was also an SU graduate) of Ouachita Parish, Louisiana. The latter two were born out of wedlock, but acknowledged biological children (by different mothers) of Davenport, who had signed their birth certificates. Davenport’s body was on the way to Warren, Ohio for burial when Mark Davenport petitioned a Louisiana district court to release the body to him. An injunction was granted and the aircraft carrying Davenport’s remains was forced to land at Fort Leonard, Missouri, where the Army controlled the body pending a court hearing. A week later, Mark Davenport was able to gain a court order to secure Davenport’s body. Eventually, it was decided that a memorial service would be held in Ohio on June 28, while Davenport’s funeral service would be held at Southern University’s Seymour Gymnasium on July 1, with burial at Roselawn Memorial Park in Baton Rouge.

Willie Davenport had two careers: athlete and military man. Sometimes those careers converged; other times they did not. The one constant they always shared was his commitment to excellence at the highest level.

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