By Daniel Massey
Some 70 years after his father attended PS 139, former Olympic long-distance runner Richard Buerkle inspired students at the Rego Park school with tales of his road to the Olympics during a celebration last Thursday morning.
The event, which began with a student-led torch relay through the halls of the school building, was part of the Olympians in the Schools program of NYC2012, the group working to bring the 2012 Olympics to New York City.
Wearing the red, white and blue training jacket he wore as a member of the US team at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, Buerkle told a gathering of more than 100 students that the games were “one of the most dramatic and one of the most exciting experiences to be a part of.”
Even though he did not run away from the 1976 Olympics with a medal, Buerkle said the games taught him the important lesson of how to overcome stereotypes.
“When I went to the Olympics in 1976, Russia was our enemy,” he told the students,” many of whose parents emigrated from the former Soviet Union. “I got to meet a real live Russian and guess what? He wasn’t a bad guy … he was just like me.”
Buerkle, who once held the world record for the indoor mile, also related to the students the friendship African-American track and field star Jesse Owens formed with German athlete Luz Long on his way to winning four gold medals at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. Buerkle demonstrated to the students how Long showed Owens to avoid a foot fault by making a mark several inches before the broad jump take-off board.
The two athletes, one white and one black, strolled around the track arm in arm to the shock of Hitler after Owens captured the gold medal, Buerkle said.
“He helped Jesse Owens,” Buerkle recalled. “That takes courage, especially when the leader of your country is a little bit crazy.”
Following his presentation, the students peppered Buerkle, whose father, aunt and uncle all attended the Rego Park school, with a round of questions.
Many raised their hands to ask the long-distance runner for his autograph, but others wanted to know how fast Buerkle ran, if he got nervous before races, if he ever lost and if the 54-year-old was still running competitively.
“Do you think you could beat Michael Johnson?” asked one student.
With a chuckle, Buerkle suggested he would have no chance in a sprint, but that he could outrun the speed demon in a long-distance race.
Many of the students wanted to know what inspired Buerkle to become an Olympic athlete.
Buerkle recalled sitting in Yankee Stadium in 1960 when a message flashed across the scoreboard informing fans that Wilma Rudolph had just won her fourth gold medal.
“I got really excited about the Olympics at that point,” he said.
Then the father of three who teaches Spanish in an Atlanta school offered the students advice on how to succeed in sports and other aspects of life.
“Go after what you want and go after it all the way,” he said.
Buerkle’s message appeared to resonate with those in attendance.
“When you want to be successful, you have to try hard,” said fifth-grader Raphael Robenoc.
His classmate, Elizabeth Diaz, said, “I want to be an Olympic figure skater like Michelle Kwan or Tara Lipinski.”
Reach reporter Daniel Massey by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 156.