For Olympian Frank Shorter, Running Was An Escape From A Home That Was 'A Prison'

Download Audio
Frank Shorter, left, winner of the grueling Olympic marathon race in Munich on Sept. 10, 1972, and his teammate and countryman Ken Moore, who placed fourth, face the cheering crowds after the event. (AP)
Frank Shorter, left, winner of the grueling Olympic marathon race in Munich on Sept. 10, 1972, and his teammate and countryman Ken Moore, who placed fourth, face the cheering crowds after the event. (AP)

Frank Shorter won the Olympic Marathon in Munich in 1972, and four years later added a silver medal to that gold when he finished second in the marathon at the games in Montreal.

He later helped establish the first anti-doping agency in the U.S. and served as a spokesman against athletes using performance enhancing drugs. But his public persona hid a dark secret: the years of abuse he and his siblings suffered at the hands of their father, Dr. Samuel Shorter.

Shorter discusses his life and his memoir, "My Marathon," with Here & Now's Eric Westervelt.

More from Here & Now's series on life after the Olympics.

Interview Highlights: Frank Shorter

On his father

“He was a totally different person when he came home. His main purpose at home was to discipline his children. And then also to stifle any creativity or goals or anything else about them. My conclusion really is he's one of those few human beings who didn't want his children to exceed him. I realized at 5 (years old) when he was beating me up one day. He would come home and interrogate my mother late at night. And then his modus operandi was then decide which child he was going to discipline, and we would wait for him, and we'd hear him come up the stairs, and we'd just have to see into whose room he would go and who he would drag out of bed and beat.

And I found, that at about age 8, I began to spend a lot of time out of the house, and I started to run. And then I realized this was really stress relief for me, because, when I was out there, out of the house, running, he couldn't get me. He couldn't catch me. That really is how I got into the running: to minimize stress and cope, rather than to have goals of going to the Olympics.”

On running as a way to escape his father

“It was something he didn't do, he wasn't an athletic person. I think it was part of my first way to not be like my father. Now as an adult to look back, I realize, I think had this instinct of not passing this along, and I tell all young kids, when they start in sports, I say, ‘Try all sports,’ because there is a biomechanical movement that every person loves and enjoys the most, and mine happened to be running. I found I just loved moving across the ground. I could think about whatever I wanted, and I was safe.”

"There is a biomechanical movement that every person loves and enjoys the most, and mine happened to be running. I found I just loved moving across the ground. I could think about whatever I wanted, and I was safe."

Frank Shorter, on using running to escape his abusive father

On the terrorist attack at the 1972 Olympics

“I was sleeping on the balcony. It was like 4 in the morning. I said, ‘I've been out here several days. It's the first time I've heard this. This is not a door slamming. This is a gun.’ And as we went through the day, we just stood out there on the balcony and looked across, and at one point — if people can remember there's a famous photograph of one of the terrorists in a balaclava with a submachine gun on the balcony — well, we saw that person, and that shows you how naive we were. It had never happened before, and all he had to do was just sort of spray bullets at us if he wanted to, because we were that close. But we were, in a sense, all in shock.”

On how he ran in the Olympic marathon days after the attack

“I think the modern term is ‘compartmentalize.’ I think I learned at a very young age when I went outside the door of my house, which was a prison, I could just turn off thoughts and focus on things over which I had control. So that's what I would do — in effect, blot it out. And then think about it when it was appropriate because the only thing over which I had control was fear, and fear of what the terrorists might do, and I was not going to let them win on that.”

On how his siblings' stories have also been told through the book

"They opened up and the story just became more horrific. There were rapes. It was horrific abuse. It was better for them, I think. When my brother died last year, which was maybe the impetus to write the whole story and how it fit in the context of my life, how I think about things, how I do things, where it came from.

They really were much, much... not happier, but they were more relieved, I think, to finally have it out there, because part of this process is, number one, you really, really have the kind of fear of this kind of person that you can't describe and it lasts your whole life. You fear this person in a way that is indescribable. The other part of it being, their being able to talk about it, it actually is true. And I think part of that is, you wonder since it was so horrific, 'Am I making this up? Have I imagined it as worse than it was?' And we all found out, no, we found out it was worse than we thought it was. It really was good for them, because now there's no sort of undercurrent anymore when we get together. I think that's the best way to describe it."

Book Excerpt: 'My Marathon'

"My Marathon," by Frank Shorter. (Courtesy of Rosdale Books)
The cover of "My Marathon," by Frank Shorter. (Courtesy of Rosdale Books)

By Frank Shorter

September 10, 1972. It was the morning of my marathon, and by every conceivable measure, I felt ready. The moment I rose from my mattress, and my bare feet touched the concrete floor of the balcony of our apartment in the athletes’ village, I knew I was in rhythm. In balance. I didn’t think I was going to win. I just felt confident that my plan would hold up.

My mantra: Ride my pain, work through the finish, don’t get distracted. Don’t think about the fact that, five days earlier, I had looked out from my balcony across the courtyard and seen a terrorist in a balaclava pointing an Uzi from a facing apartment window. Don’t think about the 11 slain Israeli athletes, the air of stunned hysteria permeating Munich, or the chances of a follow-up attack. There would be time for that later. My job was to run—my trusted method for coping with chaos and managing mayhem.

I went into the apartment, keeping quiet so that I wouldn’t disturb Dave Wottle and his wife, Jan. After Dave had won his gold medal in the 800 early in the Games, he celebrated by smuggling his bride into our unit. It wasn’t much of a challenge. It was easy to forge an ID card or, as the Black September killers had proven, just climb the chain-link fence and push through an unlocked door. I had given Dave and Jan my half of a bedroom and dragged my mattress out to the balcony.

Now, I slipped on a pair of training shoes and headed out for a brief shakedown walk around the village, nodding to the heavily armed West German soldiers standing sentry, five days too late. Later, back at the apartment, I put on warm-ups and went down to the dining hall for my prerace meal ritual: toast, coffee, and fruit. There was plenty of time to digest before the 3 p.m. start. The afternoon post time suited me. I wasn’t much for early mornings. Back home, I trained every day at 11:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. You could set your watch by my routine. Consistency, I had learned, was another way to tamp down terror.

I filled the next few hours by resting and reviewing my game plan. Earlier in the Games, I had finished fifth in the 10,000 meters. My 27:51:32 clocking was good for an American record but not good enough for a medal. After crossing the line, I stood for a moment, hands on hips, studying the times on the scoreboard. I might have looked disappointed, but in fact I was calibrating. None of my competitors in the marathon could touch my speed for a 10-K. This was good. My plan was falling into place. This was very good.

Over the course of my two weeks in Munich, I had made a point of running every section of the 26.2-mile marathon course. The previous Thursday I rode the metro out to the Nymphenburg Palace, at the 9-mile mark. I hopped off the car, took a quick glance at the graceful lawns and gardens and the imposing main building that had been built in the 1600s, and I made a note to return later as a tourist.

I then turned and ripped off a 3-mile time trial, mile 9 to mile 12 of the marathon course, the same stretch over which I planned to surge during the race. I covered the first mile in 4:30, then, over the next 2 miles, throttled back to a still-rapid 4:50 pace. It felt easy, almost preternaturally easy, only 75 to 80 percent of maximum perceived effort, the ease the product of the mass of searing speedwork I’d logged over the past few years. This was another favorable sign. After cooling down, I rode the metro back to the Olympic Village. Athletes received free public-transit passes for the duration of the Games, which, during those rigidly amateur years, seemed like quite the perk.

A few days later I took another metro ride, this one out to the military hospital where I had been born in 1947, when my father was serving in the newly partitioned West Germany as a physician for the occupying US Army. I liked telling people at the Olympics that I’d been born in Munich. It gave me a special connection to the city, and I hoped that visiting the hospital might provide an emotional boost in the final days before the marathon.

My field trip, however, proved anticlimactic. The military hospital turned out to be small and nondescript, resembling a clinic more than a hospital as we conceive of them in the United States. I tried to imagine my parents on the day of my birth—my mother’s hair, my father’s uniform—but came up empty. All I could envision were two amorphous, impersonal entities delivering me into the world. I realized that visiting the hospital had been a mistake. Any thought of my father was a mistake. I climbed back on the metro and rode home to the athletes’ village.

Now, opening my eyes, I returned to marathon day. It was time to go to the stadium. I packed my gear, knowing that bottles of defizzed Coke had already been cached at the water stations along the course. Kenny Moore, my teammate on the Olympic Marathon team and my mentor for the event, had recommended Coke, with its restorative blend of sugar and caffeine, as the ideal midrace beverage. I shouldered my gear bag and went out into the day, which was shaping up to be warm and humid. I always liked running in the heat. For the past two years I’d been living and training in Gainesville, Florida, not far from the Everglades, one of the steamier places on the planet.

Kenny and I walked to the stadium together. I felt calm, but at the same time I felt something building. Just ride it like the Munich metro, I cautioned myself. Stand back from the tracks and step onto the car when it rolls up.

A few days earlier, we had gone to the stadium for the memorial service for the Israeli athletes. After the ceremony, Kenny said, “During the marathon, every step of the way, I’m going to be thinking about the victims.”

“That’s what those killers want,” I said, “to get inside our heads.”

Kenny went quiet for a moment. “How can you forget about all that’s happened?” he said.

During the hundreds of miles we’d run together over the last few years, I had told Kenny just about everything about myself, but I hadn’t talked about my father. “I’m not going to forget,” I said. “I’m just not going to think about it.”

A few minutes later, in the holding room in the bowels of the stadium, I sat with Kenny and Jack Bacheler. Jack was the third member of the US Marathon team, another training partner and close friend. Their presence lent a sense of normalcy to the proceedings. It might be the Olympics, but to us it was still just another track meet. The other medal favorites were on hand: Mamo Wolde of Ethiopia, the defending Olympic champion; Derek Clayton of Australia, the world-record holder at the marathon; and Ron Hill of Great Britain, who had run the fastest marathon thus far in 1972 and who had won that year’s Boston Marathon.

Now it was time. We spilled out onto the track, into the bowl of the stadium. The lion’s roar of the crowd washed over us. I flashed back to the 1970 US–USSR track meet in Leningrad during my second season of international competition. At the start of the 10,000 meters, I had glanced at one of the Soviet runners, read the letters “CCCP” (the Russian-language abbreviation for the Soviet Union) emblazoned on his singlet, and thought, Yes, I’m really here; I’m in Russia. I felt the same way now. I’m really here, at the starting line of the Olympic Marathon.

I glanced up at the press box and TV cameras. ABC was televising the race, with Jim McKay from Wide World of Sports calling the action and Erich Segal, author of Love Story and my former professor at Yale, adding color commentary. For a moment I wondered if my sisters and brothers would be tuning in back in Taos. Then I let that thought go and stepped to the line.

The gun cracked. Drawing on my track experience, I went out hard, breaking for position on the inside lane. At best that would save me a few meters of distance and a few seconds of time, but in the fraught late stages of a marathon, small early economies could pay big dividends. We circled the track one and a half times and then ran out of the stadium and onto the streets of Old Munich. We ran through Sendlinger Tor, an arched stone gate erected in the 14th century, and continued past the Bürgerbräukeller, where, in 1922, at the infamous Beer Hall Putsch, young Adolf Hitler spearheaded the rise of the Third Reich. We crossed the bridge spanning the Isar river, passed the massive Pinakothek art museum, and worked down the oak-lined paths of the English Garden. We threaded the needle through Siegestor gate and ran by the Odeonsplatz, a public square where Nazi mobs once massed.

I tucked into the lead pack, clicking along at a 5-minute-mile pace. It felt easy. Mile 5, mile 6, mile 7—just ride it, just read the room; that is, appraise my competition. Wolde, Clayton, and Hill; Kenny and Jack: They were all marking time, holding their places, thinking that the real racing wouldn’t start for at least another hour. In 1972 the marathon was mostly a war of attrition. You ran at a steady pace and hoped that you fell apart a little later than the next guy. The previous December, at the Fukuoka Marathon in Japan, I had experimented with a new tactic, surging at around 14 miles and then easing back. I might try something similar here, the other guys thought, but not for a while. We were only at mile 9, the Nymphenburg Palace rising in front of us.

We left the road and entered the palace grounds. We ran past a fountain and approached a 150-degree turn to the right—a virtual U-turn. The pack slowed to negotiate the bend. That is, the other guys slowed; this was my moment. I cut out wide, to the left of the pack. As the other runners braked for the turn, I floored it, just as I’d rehearsed during my time trial the week before. I rocketed out of that turn like a rock flung from a slingshot, opening a lead that was 50 meters and growing.

My opponents were surprised but not impressed. I was shooting my bolt way too early, they thought. No way could I hold this lead, keep my pace, for 18 more miles. Wolde, Clayton, Hill, and the others were certain they would reel me in.

What those other guys didn’t know was my capacity for riding my pain. I had been planning this move for an entire year. Or, by another way of reckoning, for my entire life.

Excerpted from the book MY MARATHON: REFLECTIONS ON A GOLD MEDAL LIFE by Frank Shorter. Copyright © 2016 by Frank Shorter. Reprinted with permission of Rosdale Books.


Frank Shorter, Olympic Gold Medal winner and author of "My Marathon: Reflections On A Gold Medal Life."

This segment aired on August 2, 2016.



More from Here & Now

Listen Live