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Rafer Johnson, Olympic champ and Special Olympics icon, dies

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By Beth Harris | Related Press

LOS ANGELES — Rafer Johnson, who received the decathlon on the 1960 Rome Olympics and helped subdue Robert F. Kennedy’s murderer in 1968, died Wednesday. He was 86.

He died at his dwelling within the Sherman Oaks part of Los Angeles, in line with household good friend Michael Roth. No reason behind demise was introduced.

Johnson was among the many world’s biggest athletes from 1955 by way of his Olympic triumph in 1960, successful a nationwide decathlon championship in 1956 and a silver medal on the Melbourne Olympics that very same yr.

His Olympic profession included carrying the U.S. flag on the 1960 Video games and lighting the torch on the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum to open the 1984 Video games. Johnson set world data within the decathlon three completely different occasions amid a fierce rivalry together with his UCLA teammate C.Okay. Yang of Taiwan and Vasily Kuznetsov of the previous Soviet Union.

Johnson received a gold medal on the Pan American Video games in 1955 whereas competing in simply his fourth decathlon. At a welcome dwelling meet afterward in Kingsburg, California, he set his first world report, breaking the mark of two-time Olympic champion and his childhood hero Bob Mathias.

On June 5, 1968, Johnson was engaged on Kennedy’s presidential marketing campaign when the Democratic candidate was shot within the kitchen of the Ambassador Lodge in Los Angeles. Johnson joined former NFL star Rosey Grier and journalist George Plimpton in apprehending Sirhan Sirhan moments after he shot Kennedy, who died the following day.

“I knew he did the whole lot he may to care for Uncle Bobby at his most weak second,” Kennedy’s niece, Maria Shriver, mentioned by cellphone. “His devotion to Uncle Bobby was pure and actual. He had protected his good friend. Even after Uncle Bobby’s demise he stayed shut.”

Johnson later referred to as the assassination “one of the crucial devastating moments in my life.”

Born Rafer Lewis Johnson on Aug. 18, 1934, in Hillsboro, Texas, he moved to California in 1945 together with his household, together with his brother Jim, a future NFL Corridor of Fame inductee. Though some sources cite Johnson’s start yr as 1935, the household has mentioned that’s incorrect.

They finally settled in Kingsburg, close to Fresno within the San Joaquin Valley. It was lower than 25 miles from Tulare, the hometown of Mathias, who would win the decathlon on the 1948 and 1952 Olympics and show an early inspiration to Johnson.

Johnson was a standout scholar and performed soccer, basketball, baseball and monitor and subject at Kingsburg Joint Union Excessive. At 6-foot-3 and 200-plus kilos, he regarded extra like a linebacker than a monitor and subject athlete.

Throughout his junior yr of highschool, Johnson’s coach took him to Tulare to observe Mathias compete in a decathlon, an expertise Johnson later mentioned spurred him to take up the grueling 10-event sport.

As a freshman at UCLA, the place he obtained educational and athletic scholarships, Johnson received gold on the the 1955 Pan Am Video games, and set a world report of seven,985 factors.

After successful the nationwide decathlon championship in 1956, Johnson was the favourite for the Olympics in Melbourne, however pulled a abdomen muscle and strained a knee whereas coaching. He was compelled to withdraw from the lengthy leap, for which he had additionally certified, however tried to intestine out the decathlon.

Johnson’s teammate Milt Campbell, a digital unknown, gave the efficiency of his life, ending with 7,937 factors to win gold, 350 forward of Johnson.

It was the final time Johnson would ever are available in second.

Johnson, Yang, and Kuznetzov had their approach with the report books between the 1956 and 1960 Olympics.

Kuznetzov, a two-time Olympic bronze medalist who the Soviets referred to as their “man of metal,” broke Johnson’s world report in Could 1958 with 8,016 factors.

Later that yr at a U.S.-Soviet twin meet in Moscow, Johnson beat Kuznetzov by 405 factors and reclaimed the world report with 8,302 factors. Johnson received over the Soviet viewers together with his gutsy efficiency in entrance of what had been a hostile crowd.

A automobile accident and subsequent again harm saved Johnson out of competitors throughout 1959, however he was wholesome once more for the Olympics in 1960.

Yang was his major competitors in Rome. Yang received six of the primary 9 occasions, however Johnson led by 66 factors going into the 1,500 meters, the decathlon’s closing occasion.

Johnson needed to end inside 10 seconds of Yang, which was no small feat as Yang was a lot stronger working at distance than Johnson.

Johnson completed simply 1.2 seconds and 6 yards behind Yang to win the gold. Yang earned silver and Kuznetsov took bronze.

At UCLA, Johnson performed basketball for coach John Wood, changing into a starter on the 1958-59 workforce. In 1958, he was elected scholar physique president, the third Black to carry the workplace in class historical past.

“He stood for what he believed in and he did it in a really stylish approach with grace and dignity,” Olympic champion swimmer Janet Evans mentioned by cellphone.

Evans final noticed Johnson, who attended her 2004 wedding ceremony, at a luncheon in his honor in Could 2019.

“We have been all there to fete him and he simply didn’t wish to be within the highlight,” she mentioned. “That was one of many issues I liked about him. He didn’t need credit score.”

Johnson retired from competitors after the Rome Olympics. He started performing in films, together with appearances in “Wild within the Nation” with Elvis Presley, “None However the Courageous” with Frank Sinatra and the 1989 James Bond movie “License to Kill.” He labored briefly as a TV sportscaster earlier than changing into a vice chairman at Continental Phone in 1971.

In 1984 Johnson lit the Olympic flame for the Los Angeles Video games. He took the torch from Gina Hemphill, granddaughter of Olympic nice Jesse Owens, who ran it into the Coliseum.

“Standing there and looking, I bear in mind considering ‘I want I had a digital camera,’” Johnson mentioned. “My hair was standing straight up on my arm. Phrases actually appear insufficient.”

All through his life, Johnson was broadly recognized for his humanitarian efforts.

He served on the organizing committee of the primary Particular Olympics in Chicago in 1968, working with founder Eunice Kennedy Shriver. Johnson based California Particular Olympics the next yr at a time when optimistic function fashions for the intellectually and bodily disabled have been uncommon.

“Rafer actually paved the trail for many people to know the obligations that include being a profitable athlete and the variety of lives you may impression and alter,” Evans mentioned.

Maria Shriver recalled assembly Johnson for the primary time at age 10 or 11 by way of her mom, Eunice.

“He and I joked that I’ve been in love with him ever since,” she mentioned. “He actually was a unprecedented man, such a loving, gracious, elegant, humble man who dealt with his success in such a lovely approach and stayed so true to himself all through his life.”

Peter Ueberroth, who selected Johnson to gentle the Olympic torch in 1984, referred to as him “only one nice individual, a wonderful human being.”

Johnson labored for the Peace Corps, March of Dimes, Muscular Dystrophy Affiliation and American Pink Cross. In 2016, he obtained the UCLA Medal, the college’s highest award for extraordinary accomplishments. The varsity’s monitor is known as for Johnson and his spouse Betsy.

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