With this being Bowling Green State University's centennial, one sport management class project was to document the last 100 years of sports at BG. Former Tippecanoe High School runner and current Bowling Green State University cross country team member, Jason Salyer, had the opportunity to interview Dave Wottle.
Wottle credits much of his success to former BG teammate Sid Sink. Sink was a 3 time All-American in cross country (10 time all-american if you also include indoor and outdoor track), was a 2 time NCAA Champion in steeplechase, and had the American Record in the steeple.
Also, the 1969-1972 BG cross country teams finished in the top 10 at Nationals, an accomplishment only Oregon was also able to do. Both Sink and Wottle were a part of that dynasty.
Q: Ok, so I’m going to take you back to the early 1970s when you were on the BG XC team. Four top ten finishes at Nationals and you were a part of three of those, is that correct? Also, how big of an accomplishment was this for you guys?
A: It was two. I got injured right before Nationals in 1970. I got a stress fracture right before Nationals. Oregon was the only other team to finish in the top 10 from 1969-1972 with Prefontaine there. It was a little mini dynasty for a few years, nothing like Arkansas’s, but it was our little time in the sun.
Q: Well, a lot of being able to produce good teams year after year is to have a great group of guys that are not only talented, but are dedicated in the offseason. Can you talk about the team camaraderie and work-ethic? I mean, you were running with several All-Americans, as well as yourself.
A: Yeah, we really had a great team. Paul Talkington and Sid Sink started the whole thing and got it rolling. Paul was a year ahead of Sid, and they were our front-runners. Our class yielded a few good guys, Rich Breeze, and myself, and Jim Ferstle. Then the following year we really got a great core with Steve Danforth, Tracy Elliott, and Bob McComber. So that really gave us the punch and the depth that we needed to do well at Nationals. I’ve always told people that those guys are like my brothers. I spent more time with them than with my own family because you are out there on long runs with them and you do things socially with them. They are kind of your fraternity. I was never in a fraternity because I always felt that the track and cross country guys were my fraternity brothers.
I noticed you mentioned previously that we would get up early in the morning for A.M. practice and teammates would really razz each other if you didn’t make it to the morning workout. I was razzed just as much as anybody else because I would often sleep in. I actually, in my junior and senior year, preferred running by myself in the mornings because I wanted to get up later than they did. They’d get up at 6 or 6:30 and I would want to get up at 7 or 7:30.
Q: Were those morning practices set up by Coach Mel Brodt?
A: Well, yes and no. He would tell us how much we were supposed to run and how hard, but Sid was the person that really motivated us and got us going and made sure we felt guilty if we missed the workout. I can’t really underestimate how much Sid did. He was a disciple of the sport. He absolutely loved distance running. He was the one who knew all of the statistics and kept up with all the competition. He was able to help us set goals. Coach would set goals, but Sid would also reaffirm those which added more credibility to it because he was one of us. I’ve always said this, but Sid, of all the runners at Bowling Green, deserved to go to the Olympics more than anybody. He loved the sport so much. He was so dedicated to it, an extremely dedicated worker, and he missed going by just one spot. That was probably my biggest disappointment, thaat he wasn’t on the Olympic team with me.
Q: He got 4th in the 5k at the Olympic Trials, right? (picured at right at The Armory, photo courtesy of The Armory, https://ny.milesplit.com)
A: Yep, 4th in the 5k, and of course he broke the American record in the steeple the year before and then had a weird injury. His one leg was about a half inch shorter than his other. He got his injury in 1972 and tried to fight through it and just wasn’t really able to do it. Steeplechase was his event. He got 9th in the steeple at the trials and was so disappointed, but really gave it his all in the 5k and just missed going by one spot. It wasn’t like he was unable to run, but he really wasn’t 100 percent. There’s no doubt in my mind that he would have qualified in the steeple had the Olympics been in 1971. He set the American record that year and would have been the favorite in the race.
The thing about Sid, I remember at the MAC Championships in 1969, the year we won, he developed tendonitis in his knee two weeks before the race. He wanted to win that race so badly that he gave himself a shot of cortisone right before the race, He hadn’t trained for a while, but he went out and won it. It was an unbelievable effort for someone who was really hurting. It kind of shows you the character and commitment he had to the team. We ended up beating Western Michigan by 1 point that race.
Q: You know, injuries often just come about randomly. Obviously, you guys were training very hard. Sid said you guys would run anywhere from 70-90 miles a week during the cross country season and over 100 miles a week in the Summer offseason.
A: Yeah, well one week I went up to 120 miles during cross country. That was my highest. For a middle distance runner that was a lot of mileage for me.
Q: Yeah, that’s quite a lot of mileage. Anyways, I’m sure you were very careful with your training. Were the injuries just random or because of overtraining?
A: Well we had a hard training regimen. Coach Mel Brodt would use the Igloi system where you would go medium, hard, medium, hard, medium hard, for each day at practice, as opposed to hard, easy, hard, easy, hard, easy that many programs do today. We would do distance on Monday, speedwork on Tuesday, and race pace on Wednesday. Doing a hard workout three days in a row helps runners build more endurance, but yes, it can make you a little more injury prone.
Q: How was your training in track and training for the Olympics compared to your training in cross country?
A: Well, it was totally different. The reps were a lot longer in cross country.. We would do 20 repeat 400s with a 1 minute rest interval, and then cap it off with a mile at the end, followed by a fast two mile. That was our Tuesday workout and we’d do repeat miles or repeat two miles on Monday. In track it was a lot more quality. We would come down in distance and do more quality workouts. The mileage would drop and we would drop by 20-30 miles a week, but you would spend much more time on quality workouts as opposed to volume.
Q: All of your teammates, I would imagine, were very competitive in practice, and I would imagine Sink would lead the distance workouts and you would try to hang with him, and then you would lead the speed workouts and he would try to hang with you, so you both made each other better by pushing each other in practice. Can you just talk about competitive practices and having your teammates there to motivate you to run harder?
A: Well, yeah. I probably didn’t even lead all of the track workouts. I was always a kicker, as you may know, and so I would usually follow the guys even in speed workouts. Like I said, Sid was the one that would push the pace would usually lead those workouts. We were very competitive with each other and I think that made us better. Even in the wind sprints we would compete with each other.
You would get razzed by the guys if they didn’t think you were working hard enough. I got outkicked in the Drake Relays in the 4 mile relay a runner from Michigan State. I felt bad because I had let my teammates down, even though I had strep throat, but they razzed me about it and let me know I had gotten outkicked.
Q: At the start of your guys’ dynasty, I wouldn’t say you came out of nowhere, but you kind of established your dominance and got a big target on your backs. Did you guys feel pressure to win every meet as you guys became more successful?
A: Well, we did come out of nowhere by the way. My freshman year we only finished 4th in the conference. We were horrible. One of our guys was a hurdler that we made run. So, we came out of nowhere and no, I don’t think we felt pressure, we just wanted to win. We were just competitive. We didn’t feel like we had to win, but we wanted to win.
Q: Ok, so since you guys came out of nowhere, what attracted you to come to Bowling Green?
A: Sid Sink and Mel Brodt. My first college visit I ever made was my freshman year in high school. Mel Brodt invited me up and I went there. I wasn’t anything, just a 5 minute miler. I was flattered he invited me. Coach continued to recruit me after that, but Sid was the one who was an All-American his freshman year. When I visited the campus my senior year I talked to Sid and was very impressed by the fact that he had developed into an All-American steeplechaser his freshman year and had hopes and dreams for the team. He really motivated me to catch that dream that we could make something out of nothing. With the two of us, and we got a good core in, we knew we could make something of Bowling Green. Like I said, Sid was really the cornerstone of all that happened back then.
Now, I was actually slated to go to Mount Union. I was somewhat torn. I had a roommate, a room assignment, and a class schedule already and was all ready to go to Mount, but about two weeks before I thought about how their mile record was only 4:17 and mine was 4:20. I thought I could get that record my freshman year and wondered what would inspire me after that. With Sid, he told me what I would inspire to. He told me I would be one of the best in the nation and I felt I would be able to achieve more if I went to Bowling Green, so I switched a couple weeks before.
Q: So you qualified in the 800 at the Olympic trials. What was your training like after the trials? Who did you train with and where at?
A: I got injured. I ran the trials and qualified in the 800 and 1500 and that was over July 9th and then I got married on July 15th. So I went on my honeymoon for a few days and then got back with the team July 20th. We assembled at Bowden College in Maine. Bill Bowerman, the track coach, was very much against me getting married before the games. You know, he’s old school and I don’t blame him in hindsight, but there was no way I was going to tell my wife six days before our wedding that I couldn’t go through with it. So, I tried to prove to him, once I got back to Maine after my honeymoon, that I could still do it. However, during a hard workout I did on my honeymoon, I developed tendonitis in my left knee. So my mileage was cut. Instead of running 60-80 miles per week that I should have been doing, I could only do 15-20 miles a week. So I didn’t really train much. Al Buehler, who was the coach at Duke, was the distance coach and Bowerman was the head coach. Al would assist me in what workouts I could do and was there to encourage me. Like I said, Coach Bowerman’s game plan for me was all thrown off. I wasn’t able to do the workouts that he assigned. As you can imagine with 15-20 miles, you’re not doing much running. So I was not at where I wanted to be. I was at my peak at the trials and was just trying to get through the Olympics.
Q: How did that injury affect your confidence level? You weren’t able to train like you wanted to. What was your mindset and how confident were you in your running ability?
A: Well, I wasn’t very confident and my mindset was pretty bad. I’m glad my wife went with me, Jan. She was encouraging and Coach Brodt came over in Munich before the 800. He kind of sat me down and gave me a pep talk and told me all the base mileage I had put in would carry me through and that I’d be okay. It sounds kind of trite, but when a coach sits down and says ‘you’ll be okay’ then it gives you some confidence. As you saw during the first part of that race, I wasn’t a real confident runner. I just didn’t have the zip that I had at the trials. You just have to fight through those things and I was just very fortunate.
Q: I saw that race on YouTube (below) and when I saw it, I started my watch and noticed that you ran pretty much even splits across the board with 26s. Was that a strategy or did it just happen like that?
A: It just happened. Usually you don’t go into the Olympics and say you’ll give the other guys ten yards and reel them in at the end. But no, it just happened. That was a combination of my conditioning and my mindset. I didn’t feel I had the zip to go out with them and wasn’t sure about my endurance, so I didn’t want to go out too fast. So I just held back and luckily I didn’t panic. I was lucky it wasn’t the fastest of races. I had run 1:44.3 at the trials and this was only a 1:45.9, so it was a good second and a half slower which played into my hands. And also Evgeni Arzanov, who is a very strong kicker, started his move too early. He made his move with 300 meters to go which he almost never did. He was a very strong 100-150 meter kicker and had a lot of leg speed.
Q: What country did Arzanov represent?
A: The Soviet-Union. He ended up finishing 2nd place. He was undefeated in championship competition three years prior to the Olympic games and was the favorite going into the race. It worked out well for me with the way the race developed and I tell people that if I ran the race ten times, I’d be lucky to win it twice. Those guys were very good runners and it just kind of worked out well.
Q: Well at one point in the race the announcer question whether you were injured, but around the 500 meter mark you started to move up. What was going through your head?
A: I was just trying to stay close. All I wanted to do when I fell back by 10 yards at the 200 meter mark was just to regain contact which I was able to do at the quarter. I caught up to the back of the pack. I wanted to just relax for a little bit. Arzanov was in 6th place at the time. So I regrouped with the pack and could see Arzanov who I thought would be the main competition. So I was able to relax a bit and then he took off with 300 meters to go so I felt at that point in time that I needed to make a move. All I was trying to do was stay close to what I consider striking distance. I was moving to the outside, in the second and third lanes, so I didn’t get boxed in. Then, as you have seen, they came back to me at the end. They had gone out fast and started slowing down in the end and I was just maintaining the same pace. It looked like I had a kick, but they were actually coming back to me.
Q: Yeah, you kept great form and had a great stride in the final straightaway. When did Gold medal come in your sights? When did you feel like you could maybe pull it off or grab silver?
A: About ten meters from the finish line. At the top of the stretch I was in fourth. As a runner your mind is working like a little computer. How far are they ahead of you and how quickly are you gaining on them? I was really just going for a bronze medal. Once I had caught up to third place I reevaluated my goals and tried for silver. It wasn’t until about 10 meters from the finish line that Arzanov started to falter. I felt I was catching up to him with that surge at the tape. The Lord enabled me to win that race, but it was close. I raised my arms, but only 3 hundredths of a second. They had to look at the photo finish.
Q: Did you think that you had won?
A: I did because he fell over the finish line. It was peripheral vision. When you lean and kind of sense the person next to you. His fall was actually a perfect lean, but when I crossed and didn’t sense anybody next to me I kind of felt like I had won, but you wouldn’t have been able to sense 3 hundredths of a second.
Q: I’m sure you talked to him afterwards. Did he sense you coming on in the last 10 meters?
A: Well, actually we didn’t talk. He didn’t speak any English. I saw him in 1973 at a meet and we talked through interpreters. He was pretty disappointed, obviously. I think he felt he had it. He had a real good lead and then when I came up along his side right at the very end he tried to reaccelerate. By that time his legs were tight and his upper body was moving faster than his lower body. He tried to pump his arms and just kind of toppled over the finish line. Yeah, I think he thought he had it and was a little shocked
Q: Okay, so you get married, you win the Olympic Gold Medal, and you’re still in college and going to classes.
A: Yeah, I had student teaching when I got back to Bowling Green. I had a teacher by the name of Esther Hayhurst. I don’t think she ever knew I had won a Gold Medal. In fact, I had one of the students in my class that came and visited Rhodes college with his daughter two weeks ago. I didn’t get to see him, but he left me a note. But yeah, I had student teaching and the rest of my senior year and then I ended up getting an NCAA post graduate scholarship and went on to do some graduate work at BG.
Q: Did you feel like a celebrity on campus? Was the whole community inspired by your efforts?
A: Well, they had the parade downtown and the other normal stuff you had, but my personality was such that I didn’t really enjoy it or wasn’t really seeking it. So I went about running and I think people would notice you when the team would run through campus. But no, I don’t think I was ever the big man on campus. That’s just not my personality.
Q: Did you ever get the chance to meet Steve Prefontaine?
A: Yeah, we knew each other pretty well. I ran my fastest mile against Pre out in Eugene. I ran 3:53.3 and he ran a 3:54.6. A lot of people don’t realize he was the 6th fastest miler of all-time when he ran that. You don’t vision Pre going a good miler, but he really was a good miler. That was really a great race. I was down at an AAU meet and we were slated to go over to Europe together in a few weeks and he kind of came up to me and said ‘Why don’t you come up to Eugene. We’ll go after the world record in the mile and I’ll set the pace. I’ll bring you through in 2:56 and then each man for himself in the last lap. That was the first Hayward Restoration meet. It shows his pull. He was able to put together a great field of competitors in about a two week period of time. He brought me through at 2:56 flat. You can’t ask for a better rabbit than Prefontaine. If you ever get the tape Fire on the Track, it’s a documentary about Pre, they have that mile race on there. Then a week later I went over and met him at Helsinki. We kind of traveled together with another guy named Ralph Mann, who was a Silver Medalist in the intermediate hurdles, and we’d go up into the small towns in Scandinavia and run against their milers. We kind of hung out for a month and a half and it was interesting. Pre’s personality was obviously a lot different than mine. We were like salt and pepper. I was a newlywed and he was a playboy, but we had a good time together. I actually saw him about two weeks before he died. I was out in Eugene for a race and got to be with him and then I was down in Atlanta running a pro track meet when I heard he had been in the car accident and died. But it was great to be with him for a month and a half. You’re young and bouncing around Europe and Scandinavia together running races.
Q: I’ve seen both of the movies about Prefontaine and he brings up and questions the idea of amateurism. You went pro, correct? And you couldn’t compete in any future Olympics because of that? Can you talk about that?
A: Correct. But I honestly think I would have had a hard time keeping it going until 1976. I really was very much a follower and when Sid graduated, Sid was the leader, and I just kind of followed Sid. By the time I was finally able to pass Sid and overtake him I was ready to take on the world because he was such a great competitor. When he left and I left, I didn’t have anybody to train with. I didn’t seek out a track club wouldn’t have been able to maintain. So I just decided to go pro in track and make some money because I couldn’t envision myself going on. Back then when you made that decision to go pro, you couldn’t go back.
Q: With that being said, what is your opinion about current distance runners in America with guys like Alan Webb, Ryan Hall, Galen Rupp, Dathan Ritzenhein, and Bernard Lagat.
A: I’d really like to see some Americans get in that medal round in the distance events. I’m not telling you anything you don’t know, but Frank Shorter was my roommate over in Munich and we are the last two men to win Gold in anything above the 800, so it’s been a long time. I was actually with Alan Webb two years ago. He was going to try to be the first person to break four minutes in the mile in South Carolina. I got to spend time with him. I was very impressed and very disappointed. He’s sporadic. He has tremendous talent, but is just up and down.
Lagat, if that’s what it takes for us to get a medal, to naturalize a Kenyan, then hey, he’s a U.S. citizen. He should be able to represent the United States and I’m all for it. Sid and I were really fortunate. We were running in the heyday of distance running. Jim Ryun, Marty Liquori, Bill Rodgers, Pre, Frank Shorter. It was a great group on the international scene.
Q: The track team for Bowling Green was cut in 2002 which will make it harder for BG to regain the honor you guys established in the 1970s and carried on into the 1980s. It’s just hard to attract top distance runners without a track program. Realistically, the best BG can hope to do is to start finishing in the middle of the MAC in the next decade. Can you talk about the whole situation of cutting men’s track and moving on from there.
A: When any athletic department cuts a track program, the expectations change too. It’s not the athletes, it’s the support the support the athletes are not getting. But yeah, I was extremely disappointed. I’m a little, what do I want to say, I’m in the outs of Bowling Green is the best way to put it. I wrote a letter to the president of Bowling Green when that was happening and he never responded and I just felt it’s common courtesy, if you take that much time to write a letter, to write back. It wouldn’t have mattered to me if he had written back saying ‘Got your letter and thanks for giving me your opinion,’ but he never responded at all to me. Maybe it’s my ego, but it’s also my sense of common decency. It was kind of a combination of BG cutting the track program and the president not having enough courtesy to respond made me so I’m a little disappointed in my alma mater. I’m certainly am where I’m at because of Bowling Green, but I think it was also the individuals. In my mind I’m thankful to Mel Brodt, Sid Sink, and the rest of my teammates. They got me to where I was. Bowling Green was the vehicle that happened. I’m disappointed and will continue to be disappointed. But I understand it. I’m in college administration. I understand tuition revenue and what you have to do. I think it’d be a lot easier to stomach if Bowling Green was a national football power, but they’re not. To cut all these so they can have an average Division I football program just seems like a waste of the ability of the athletes. I’m at a school right now (Rhodes College) that has 19 varsity sports programs at D3 which is more than Bowling Green who has 18. But you know, you and I are in a minor sport, so to speak. We’ve always taken second fiddle to the football program. I would wager to say that our time back in the 1970s, the distance runners and Mel Brodt probably brought more national recognition to Bowling Green than they’ve received in football and any other sport, quite truthfully, over the years. I’m obviously biased, but I think we raised the name of Bowling Green and got the University a lot of publicity.
Q: Alright, here's my final question. Why did you decide to wear a hat during competition? It kind of became your signature mark.
A: I decided to wear the hat the year before the Olympics. I was coming off of a series of injuries from the fall of 1970 through spring 1971. I started running again in the summer of ’71. It was hot and humid in Ohio so I started wearing the hat as a sweat band, sun visor and keep the hair out of my eyes. After the summer of ’71, I didn’t wear the hat during XC (wore a stocking hat like my teammates), didn’t wear it indoors and then started wearing it again in the spring of ’72. After the Olympics, I got another hat that looked almost identical to the one I wore in the Olympics.