From an early age it was clear Tom Courtney was destined for athletic excellence. Growing up with a father who was in the New York Yankees organization and four sporty brothers, Courtney initially gravitated toward baseball and basketball at Caldwell High School in New Jersey. His basketball coach Dwight Burr, who also doubled as an assistant track coach, suggested that the tall and muscular Courtney take his talents to the track. Initially pegged as a pole-vaulter, Tom recalled his first track and field practice this past summer in an interview with GaryCohenRunning.com
“I was heading over to try the pole vault, but Head Coach Emil Piel said he was having runners do an intrasquad half mile and that I should hop in and see how I could do. I ran the half mile and won it and Coach Piel said, you’re not a pole-vaulter buddy”.
His track career blossomed from there as he garnered national attention with his state championship senior year. With scholarship offers from Penn, Yale, Villanova, Georgetown and Fordham, Tom had his pick of the nation’s top track programs. The Livingston, NJ native never considered himself a very sophisticated person so the Ivy League schools were out of the question.
Then there was Fordham, the school where his mother’s cousin was a track captain and the school his mother desperately wanted him to attend. As fate would have it, Fordham was the only school that offered the track star a full scholarship. In the fall of 1951, Courtney packed his bags for the Bronx.
Artie O’Connor was a man of Fordham in every sense of the word. The 1928 graduate was a star football player, captain of the track team and an Olympic qualifier. Coach O’Connor took a frail 6’2, 185 pound Tom Courtney and turned him into a national star. The duo’s first crowning achievement came in 1954 when Courtney won the Intercollegiate Association of Amateur Athletes of America 1000yd run.
A year later Tom won the NCAA title in the 880yd competition and anchored the world record setting 4×800 relay team. Courtney was part of Fordham’s Fabulous Four with classmates Terrance Foley, Frank Tarsney and Bill Persichetty.
The only thing standing in Tom’s way was the Army. After graduating from Fordham in 1955, Courtney planned on attending Harvard’s Business School but instead was drafted and sent to New Jersey’s military base Fort Dix. Tom stayed up late at night and rose before dawn in order to fit his Olympic training in. Private Courtney recalled his military experience in a July 2013 interview saying,
“I was out running at night along one of the fences there at Fort Dix and the commanding officer of the base came along and inquired, ‘What are you doing out here?’ I told him, ‘I’m training for the Olympics.’ He then asked, ‘Do you get up at five in the morning?’ I said, ‘Yes sir, I do.’ He said, ‘Aren’t you supposed to go to bed at ten?’ So then I said, ‘At ten at night I come out here and start running.’ He said, ‘Oh my gosh – that’s impossible.’ The next day I was out on bivouac and I heard an announcement, ‘Private Courtney report to the gymnasium for Olympic training.’”
Courtney finally got the opportunity to achieve his Olympic dreams by qualifying for the 1956 summer games in Melbourne, Australia. Despite being one of the favorites for the gold in the 800m, Courtney faced steep competition from his American teammate Arnie Sowell and Great Britain’s Derek Johnson.
On an abnormally cold and windy summer day in Melbourne, the race didn’t start the way the Fordham grad had hoped as Sowell jumped out to an early lead after the first lap. Trailing Sowell with 40 meters to go, Courtney quickly slipped into third as the Brit Johnson raced past both the Americans.
With his gold medal dreams fading away, Courtney began his kick and started one of the most improbable comebacks in Olympic history. With 15 meters remaining, Tom took the lead for the first time in the entire race and narrowly held off Johnson for the victory. Collapsing in exhaustion, Courtney later wrote in Fordham Digest,
“It was a new kind of agony for me. My head was exploding, my stomach ripping and even the tips of my fingers ached. The only thing I could think was, ‘If I live, I will never run again”.
Two days later the kid from Jersey won win his second gold medal in the 4×400 meter relay. Tom Courtney remains the only Fordham Ram to ever win an Olympic Gold Medal, let alone two.
Upon returning from Australia, the Fordham graduate was treated to a hero’s welcome in the Bronx. Courtney paraded down Fordham Road wearing his white Olympic jacket. With his beloved coach Artie O’Connor in the backseat of the convertible, Courtney returned to the Rose Hill campus serenaded by the Fordham Band. The celebration ended at the historic Rose Hill Gymnasium where the late Father Lawrence J. McGinley presented Tom with a trophy for his historic achievement.
Tom Courtney went on to a set a few more world records and called it quits before the 1960 Olympics in Rome. Courtney was inducted into the Fordham Athletics Hall of Fame in 1971. With his professional running career over, Tom shifted his focus to the business world. The Olympic champion got his MBA from Harvard and served as the Chairman of the Board at Oppenheimer and PIMCO.
Today the 80-year-old splits his time between Pennsylvania and Florida, still playing tennis five days a week and bridge with his wife Posy each night. Fordham University will never forget Tom Courtney and the gold medalist will never forget his roots. Writing after his return from Australia in Fordham Digest, the original Fordham Flash said, “Fordham has been very good to me. I received a fine education, Artie was a great coach and one can’t measure the value of his friends”. Vince Lombardi may be Fordham’s most famous athlete and a Hall of Fame coach, but he is no Tom Courtney.