Soldier-Athlete Mel Pender: Olympic Gold Medalist

By TSgt George Banker, USAF Ret.

Melvin “Mel” Pender, Jr., is not a household name outside of the track world. If there were a game show with a wheel and labels on it, it would have terms such as family, Christian, soldier, athlete, coach, mentor, speaker. You spin the wheel and you would learn about that aspect of Pender’s life. Pender states, “The theme of my life story is overcoming adversity.”

The journey for Pender began in Atlanta, Georgia on October 31, 1937. There was no road map laid out to show the path ahead. The athletics in the long run proved to be the key.  During high school Mel’s love for football was developed and there were obstacles: “There was no track and field in high school, and there were plenty of challenges to playing football.  The schools were not integrated and we had hand-me-down equipment.  Even though we had these challenges, we still played because we loved the sport,” Pender recounts.

At the age of 17 (1954) Mel entered in the U.S. Army. “My decision to join the Army was the movie that I saw when I was 10 years old, “To Hell and Back” with Audie Murphy.  I wanted to be just like him since he was short in stature just like me.  I also wanted to get away from the discrimination I faced in the South,” said Pender.

Staying involved with sports was a key component to Pender as he matured at an early age. There were choices which Pender could have made that would have resulted in a different outcome. Pender stated, “I think that every kid should be in some type of sport growing up.  It not only helps them physically, it helps them mentally and with their educational endeavors and plays a great role in teamwork as an adult.”

The military can change a life, but it’s a mindset according to Pender. “The army had many obstacles.  Most units didn’t like athletes; they felt you should be there like everyone else, not traveling around the world running. The military changed my lifestyle from poverty to prosperity.  It taught me how to be disciplined, how to overcome adversity, and how to be a gentleman.  It made me want to get my education and I did. The message I would pass along to teenagers looking forward is: Don’t fight the system, take advantage of it.  Desire to be educated and make good choices. The military isn’t for everyone but it could be for you.”

Pender maintained a belief in self and was able to overcome the adversity which he faced. The talent that Pender had developed did not go unnoticed. “I never ran track till I was 25 years old.  I was stationed in Okinawa with the 82nd Airborne Division.  Playing football on the army ranger football team, I was discovered by my head coach as the fastest runner and was asked to run in the Friendship Meet against the Japanese Olympic team who were training for the 1964 Olympics that were going to be held in Tokyo.”

Early  in his career Pender had a vision he wanted to see though to the end.  Pender stated, “Football and track were what I participated in.  Football was my heart, but track became everything.  It helped me find out who I was and I developed into the person I am today. I trained three times a day, a total of four to six hours.  In the military I trained two hours a day. My role model as a youth was my grandfather.  When I was in track and field it was my coach Colonel Lipscom who offered inspiration. I got involved with the Pioneer Track Club after meeting Alex Woodley at Morgan State College in Baltimore, Maryland at a track meet.  He inspired me to join. The setbacks were tough.  I listened to my coach and trainers and did what was necessary to move forward.”

Coach Woodley’s athletes who won Olympic gold medals included Paul Drayton, Steve Riddick, Charlie Greene, Mel Pender, Herman Frazier, and Hasely Crawford. Other leading athletes from the club included John Carlos, Ivory Crockett, Curtis Mills, Edwin Roberts, Tom McLean, and Benn Fields.

Pender served the first 11 years as enlisted with the 82nd Airborne Division. It was at the age of 27 that he qualified to run with the U.S. Olympic team at the 1964 Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo. The explosive sprint speed was his trademark. At the Olympics in round one of the 100 meters Pender ranked second in a time of 10.53, in the quarter finals he ranked second in a time of 10.44, and the quarter final time was 10.49. The finals were set and Pender placed sixth in a tie of 10.47.

Pender stated, “My experience in the 1964 Olympics was very enlightening and exciting, but it was disappointing when I pulled a muscle in my semi-final race and only placing 6th in the finals. There was always doubt when I stepped on the track and got into the starting blocks.  At any given time, there were sprinters that were good enough to beat you.”

The journey for Pender took another turn, “After the 1964 Olympic Games I needed to concentrate on my future with the military.  That is when I made the decision to go to Officer Candidate School,” he said.

According to Pender, “Football was first.  I played it in high school.  I never ran track until I was 25. We never had a track in high school. Once I found out that I could run, I became very serious and dedicated to track.  My love for football was even greater, but after getting hurt playing football in the military and in the war, I knew that it was not the sport for me.  I was offered five National Football League contracts but it wasn’t for me. There was never a time I wanted to stop track and field.  I always wanted to keep going.”

Through his career, Pender was faced with choices and opportunities. It was his inner strength and training that always led him in the right direction. The military was a driving force and there were times when he could not understand the reasons why. The term used today is the soldier-athlete. Duty first and then all else follows.

There was a second opportunity for Pender which at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico. At the time, Pender was stationed in Vietnam, “There was no advance notice.  I was pulled out of combat.  I had just completed a mission and was told that I was being sent back to the U.S. My reaction was stunned when they pulled me out of Vietnam.  The first time they pulled me out I was 30 and the second time I was 33 years old.  I was surprised that they considered me, with my age being a negative to many.  I proved them all wrong by making the team.  I also was divided about leaving my men.  My heart was troubled, but I had no choice since it was an order.”

Place yourself in Pender’s shoes. How you would evaluate the situation? Pender was making a trip and there was no time to prepare properly. Other athletes were on the track while he was in the jungles and engaged in a war. Pender was changing one venue for another as he would be running on the first all-weather track instead of a cinder track.

Pender added, “My experience in the 1968 games was two-fold.  I was grateful to be able to make my second Olympic team at my age, but greatly disappointed by the way we were treated by the USOC president Avery Brundrage.”

In viewing the track Pender stated, “My focus was on both my competitors and my skills.  I still didn’t want to lose even though I was getting tired of track. How I balanced training with my military requirements was by training at night.  I also was sent to an Army training camp for three months.”

The lineup for the 1968 Olympic 4×100 team was set up, Charlie Green, Mel Pender, Ronnie Ray Smith, and Jim Hines.

Charlie Greene was a standout from the University of Nebraska and collected numerous records along the way. At the 1967 NCAA Championship in the 100 yards, he set a new meet record  at 9.21. Greene retired in 1989 with the rank of Major from the U.S. Army. Greene was inducted into the USA Track & Field Hall of Fame in 1992 and into the University of Nebraska Hall of Fame in 2015.

Ronnie Smith attended San Jose State and at the 1968 AAU Championship the 100m time was equaled in a time of 9.9. While at San Jose State he was coached by Lloyd (Bud) Winter during the “Speed City” era. Smith ran the third leg of the 4×100 relay. Smith was inducted into the San Jose Sports Hall of Fame.

At the 1968 US national championships in Sacramento, California, Jim Hines became the first man to break the 10 second barrier in the 100-meter race, setting 9.9 (manual timing), with an electronic time of 10.03–two other athletes, Ronnie Ray Smith behind him (electronic time 10.13) and Charles Greene on the other semi-final (electronic time 10.09) having the same official clocking. That evening of June 20, 1968 at Hughes Stadium has been dubbed by track and field historians as the “Night of Speed.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jim_Hines). Hines attended Texas Southern University in Houston.

Hines was inducted to the following Halls of Fame: Texas Track & Field Coaches Association (2016), International Track & Field, USA Track & Field, Texas Sports Hall of Fame (1994), Oakland Athletic League (2013).

History was made in Mexico City at the Games of the XIX Olympiad as the four athletes set a new world record in the 4×100 relay in a time of 38.24. In Round One the qualifying time was 38.86 and they advanced to the semi-finals and ran 38.69.

Pender shared the following, “The differences between the 1964 and the 1968 Olympics were many.  The surface of the track in the ’64 games was cinder and 1968 it was rubberized. 1964 was not as political as the 1968 games. The feeling in setting the world record and getting gold was Unbelievable and Exciting.  Winning at my age was unheard of  and I was elated at the accomplishment I had just achieved.”

In playing sports there was a price to pay, “My injuries were in football, jumping out of airplanes that caused me to have concussions and neck fusion along with lower back surgery.  In running I pulled hamstrings and had many shin splints which took time to heal.  I overcame them by doing what the coach told me to do.”

Pender had the passion for track that he had for football. An opportunity presented itself as he was recruited as the first black track-and-field coach at the United States Military Academy at West Point by Carl Crowell. He coached from 1970 to 1976. While coaching, Pender completed his education and in 1976 earned a BA degree in Social Science with honors from Adelphia University.

He turned professional in 1973 and was running under the International Track Association (ITA). At the age of 35 Pender broke his own world record for 60 yards (5.8 seconds). The ITA was starting to deal with athletes making an income from their athletic ability. The ITA was in existence from October 25, 1972 to August 25, 1976. Pender set world records at 50 yards at 5.0, 60 yards at 5.8, 70 yards at 6.8, and 100 meters at 9.9.

Pender commented, “I realized at 35 years old while running pro with the ITA pro track team in San Antonio TX, that I was losing interest and it was almost time for me to retire from the military.  I needed time to concentrate on the next step in my life.”

Pender retired from the Army in 1976 with the rank of Captain after 21 years. The military awards and medals include the Bronze Star, Joint Service Commendation Medal, Vietnam Service Medal, and the Combat Infantry badge.

Pender’s Halls of Fame recognition

1984 & 1985 100% Wrong Club Hall of Fame Inductee
1984 Georgia State Sport Hall of Fame Inductee
1985 Louisiana Hall of Fame Inductee
1996 Adelphi University Hall of Fame Inductee
1996 Bellsouth Spirit of Legends Hall of Fame Inductee
1997 Doctoral Degree from Adelphi University
2001 Bob Hayes Hall of Fame Inductee
2012 Atlanta Sports Hall of Fame Inductee
2015 United States Army Officer Candidate School Hall of Fame Inductee
2015 Georgia Military Veterans’ Hall of Fame Inductee

After Pender’s military career, his journey took a new direction. He set out to make a difference in the lives of others and youth would be the beneficiary. The labels for Pender include: husband, Olympian, military officer, entrepreneur, and community leader. A few of the civic recognitions include:

1964 and 1968 All American Amateur Athletic Union Award
1966 United States Army Infantry Officers School
1981 member of Georgia’s Criminal Justice Coordinating Council
1982 appointed by Gov. George Busbee to the Jail/Prison Overcrowding Committee
1994 recognized by Dollars and Sense magazine as one of the best and brightest business and professional men
1995 US Dept. of Justice Bureau of Investigations / FBI Community Leadership Award
1995 Awarded the Mel Pender Day by the Mayor of Atlanta (Maynard Jackson)
1995 and  1996 Southern Bell Calendar Spirit Legends Award
1996 Atlanta Committee for the Youth Advisory Council US Olympic Games
1997 Doctoral Degree from Adelphi University
1998 graduated from Leadership Atlanta
2006 appointed to the United States Olympic Alumni Board
2007 Awarded Mel Pender Day by Vernon Jones CEO of Dekalb County, Georgia
2002 to Present United States Sports Academy
2014 Smyrna Community Steering Committee
2015 Campaign Chairman for Mayor of Smyrna, GA
2016 Author of Expression of Hope: The Mel Pender Story

Pender’s life has been like a roller coaster and there were challenges. Armed with faith and belief in himself, Pender made the right choices. To obtain a better picture of Pender, read the newly published book, Expression of Hope: The Mel Pender Story, Dr. Melvin Pender and Debbie Pender.

The book overview:

“Determination was etched into Pender’s DNA, and he wanted to do something to make his family proud, and “be somebody!” His is a story of the American Dream. He owns it, and he embraces it. He was scarred by the racial challenges of the 1950s and 1960s, but Pender found better angels, black and white, and kept his dream from becoming a racial nightmare. The United States Army and track propelled him into an historic figure. For some, Pender is the track world’s “Black Knight,” not because of his color but because he befriended and helped others in his profession as a big brother, father-figure, and as a friend. One of the young men he influenced is United States Army Brigadier General Richard B. Dix.”

Pender’s closing thoughts, “I want readers to know that Mel Pender is a real person.  He is first a Christian who loves his family, all people, and his country. My top three personal achievements are education, the Olympic Games, and becoming an officer. Everything I have done and all the achievements have been to make my family proud of me.”



Categories: Athlete Profiles

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