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Jenner true to word, wins Olympic gold

One defining moment
By Mike Sielski
Special to

"All of a sudden, I realized life was different. Wait a second. Everybody knows my name," says Bruce Jenner on ESPN Classic's SportsCentury series.

Bruce Jenner might be the world's most famous World's Greatest Athlete.
Bruce Jenner
Bruce Jenner broke his own world record to capture gold in the 1976 Olympics.
He owes his notoriety to a confluence of forces that came together and branched out from the two most important days of his life: July 29 and 30, 1976 -- when he won the Olympic gold medal in the decathlon in Montreal.

Jenner's life melds a host of sports stories that have become cliches. He was the solitary, single-minded slave to training who forsook many earthly pleasures to prepare for his moment of glory. Dyslexic, he fit the classic redemptive mold -- the athlete who struggled to overcome ailment or hardship to achieve excellence. And struggle he did. From his 10th-place finish in the decathlon at the 1972 Games until the 1976 Olympics, he trained, on average, eight hours a day.

At Montreal, amid the heat of the Cold War, he was the all-American boy, at 26 bringing home a gold medal in the year of the Bicentennial. Competing in the 10-event, track-and-field crucible that traditionally crowns the "world's greatest athlete," he defeated a Soviet, defending champion Nikolai Avilov, breaking his own world record with 8,618 points.

The image of Jenner that forever endures is a painting on the front of a cereal box. He has been drawn in a red, white and blue tank top and shorts, frozen in mid-run. His right knee is bent deeply. His arms are aloft in a triumphant V, as if he's making a victory lap and carrying a banner with the word "WHEATIES" swooshed across it. The perfect athlete for the perfect food.

Post-Montreal, he was the hero who seized upon his celebrity to forge an existence in which no life event -- great, small, good, bad -- escaped the spotlight's beam. There were Bruce Jenner T-shirt, Bruce Jenner dolls, Bruce Jenner board games. So newsworthy was he, The Washington Post did a 1,007-word story on him six months after the 1976 Olympics because he was doing ... nothing. (The story's headline read: "Jenner: Cheerfully Out of Shape.")

He eventually became a color commentator, an actor, a motivational speaker, and a pitchman for, among other products, commemorative Olympic coins.

He has been married three times. The first was to his college sweetheart (Chrystie) whose salary of $900 per month as a stewardess allowed him to prepare so obsessively for Montreal. The second was to a former girlfriend of Elvis Presley (Linda Thompson). Now he's married to a dear friend of Nicole Brown Simpson (the former Kris Kardashian). People magazine should have had a Bruce Jenner beat.

He was born on Oct. 28, 1949 in Mount Kisco, N.Y., to William and Esther Jenner. Raised in Tarrytown, a suburb of New York City, his predilection for track and field was, at least in part, in his genes. His father had won a silver medal in the 100-yard dash in the 1945 U.S. Army Olympics in Nuremberg, Germany.

"By the time I turned two, I'd already developed a big chest, wide shoulders and boundless energy, prompting my dad to nickname me Bruiser," Jenner wrote in his book, Finding the Champion Within. "Trying to curb my wanderlust, my parents fenced in their yard."

At home on a playing field, he labored in the classroom. He flunked second grade. It wasn't until junior high that a school doctor used the word "dyslexic" in his presence.

"My biggest fear was going to school," he said. "I was afraid the teacher was going to make me read in front of class and I was going to look bad. [But] if I wasn't dyslexic, I probably wouldn't have won the Games. If I had been a better reader, then that would have come easily, sports would have come easily. And I never would have realized that the way you get ahead in life is hard work."

In August 1966, the Jenner family moved to Sandy Hook, Conn. Wanting to remain on Sleepy Hollow High School's football team until the end of the season, Bruce, a junior, lived with a friend until December before joining his family and transferring to Newtown High.

There, he was the school's MVP in football, basketball and, of course, track. By his senior year, he was competing in the long jump, triple jump and javelin and was the state champion in the pole vault (clearing 13 feet) and the high jump (6 feet, 2 inches).

An athletic director at another school approached Jenner at a track meet and told him he knew L.D. Weldon, who coached the decathlon at Graceland College in Lamoni, Iowa. Weldon called Jenner, telling him the school's football team needed a backup quarterback and the track team needed a decathlete.

After his applications to UConn and Central Connecticut were rejected and concerned with the possibility of being drafted to fight in Vietnam, Jenner accepted a football scholarship to Graceland. The scholarship's value: $250 a year.

Bruce Jenner
Jenner trained an average of eight hour a day for four years up until his Olympic triumph.
Under Weldon, Jenner won the 1971 NAIA decathlon championship and qualified for the 1972 Olympics after coming from 11th place at the U.S. Trials at the end of the first day to finish third. He clinched his spot by running what was then a personal-best 4:16 in the 1,500 meters.

At the Games in Munich, he came in 10th. "It's still the biggest athletic thrill of my life," he said. "Never, ever in a million years did I think I'd be competing in the Olympics."

With Chrystie supporting them, the Jenner's moved to San Jose, Calif., so Bruce could workout with the top U.S. track and field competitors. After four years of relentless training, after winning the National AAU title in 1974 and the Pan-American Games in 1975, after breaking Avilov's world record in 1975 with 8,524 points and beating it by 14 points at the U.S. Olympic Trials in 1976, Jenner did what he expected himself to do. He won the Olympic gold medal.

Then the 6-foot-2, 194-pound Jenner ran his victory lap and retired that day. He said he had given up too much to get there. "Not very many people are ever in a situation where they can find out how good they can be in anything that challenges them," he said. "I made the commitment to myself in 1972 to go to the Olympics in 1976. This would be the only opportunity in my whole life to prove to myself how far I could go."

Ever since becoming a matinee idol with his Olympic victory, Jenner has spared himself few enjoyments. He appeared on a host of television shows, including "Murder, She Wrote" and "ChiPs," though his career as an actor sputtered more often than it succeeded. As a motivational speaker, he commanded as much as $15,000 per appearance from companies such as VISA, Toyota, Coca Cola and IBM.

In 1979, with their second child on the way, the Jenner's were legally separated after seven years. It was reported that Jenner was involved romantically with Thompson, whom Jenner had met at a tennis tournament hosted by Hugh Hefner.

In January 1981, Jenner married Thompson with whom he had two more children. They separated in 1986. Jenner's two divorces cost him millions. He moved into a one-room apartment in Los Angeles, had only a couple of hundred dollars in the bank and a healthy debt. His beautiful world had fallen apart.

But Jenner rebounded in the 1990s with the help of Kris Kardashian, a divorcee with four children whom he married in 1991. They have two children of their own and the family lives in Hidden Hills, Calif. The couple runs an infomercial company that reportedly sold more than $450 million in fitness equipment through 1999.

About his life, Jenner has said, "Nobody has milked one performance better than me -- and I'm damn proud of it. It completely amazes me how this whole thing turned out."

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