1952 was a year to remember for Bob McMillen. He was the NCAA champion in the 1500 meters for Occidental College and won the United States Olympic Trials in June with a record time of 3:45.59.
The 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, Finland, was one of the closest finals in Olympics history. McMillen won the silver medal with a time of 3:45.2, just a tenth of a second behind gold medalist Josy Barthel from Luxembourg. At the beginning of the final lap, McMillen sprinted up from the rear of the pack to be among the leaders and was within striking distance of the lead with 50 yards to go in the race.
Barthel was leading the race as the runners sprinted toward the finish line and as McMillen got closer and closer, Barthel would later say that he could feel McMillen literally breathing down his back when he was only one and a half feet behind. The famous photo of the race has Barthel smiling and raising his arms in triumph with an exhausted McMillen lunging for the tape and victory, to finish only a tenth of a second behind as he earned the silver medal for his effort. Over 50 years later, that race and the result sealed McMillen’s place in history as one of the best middle distance runners the United States has ever produced.
McMillen’s path from high school phenom to Olympic champion passed through Glendale College in 1948 when under the tutelage of track coach Walt Smith, McMillen won the National Junior College Championship and made the Olympic team that summer in the 3000-meter steeplechase.
McMillen came to Glendale after winning the state championship in the mile in 4:24 at Cathedral High in Los Angeles. At Glendale in 1948, McMillen was part of a distance medley team with 2003 hall of fame inductee Ed Tucker and Warren Ward, who won at the prestigious Kansas Relays that year. “We were only able to compete in that meet because the students at Glendale College collected $800 for our train fares,’’ said Ward, who won the two-mile event at the Junior College National Championships in Phoenix that year. “They took up a collection after fundraising for about three days on campus and I’ll never forget their generosity and support of us so that we could participate.’’
The Vaqueros sent a seven-man team to the National Championships in Phoenix and finished third under head coach Walt Smith in a field of 45 schools from a dozen states.
Bob McMillen will go down in history as one of the best middle distance runners to ever compete at Glendale College, and winning an Olympic silver medal is a testament to his determination and dedication to the sport.