Golden reunion for Don Bragg in Rome

Golden reunion for Don Bragg in Rome
Clayton resident Don Bragg concludes a speech at the opening ceremonies for the 50th anniversary reunion of the 1960 Rome Olympic Games. Bragg was the only American athlete on hand for the reunion in Rome. After winning the pole vault gold medal in 1960 he let out a Tarzan yell that would have made his hero Johnny Weissmuller proud. (Photo courtesy of Bragg family)

[Editor’s Note: Olympic gold medalist Don Bragg passed away Sat. Feb. 16, 2019. This article was published in the Oct. 8, 2010 Clayton Pioneer]

Clayton resident Don Bragg became famous as a champion pole vaulter with a “Tarzan” yell and persona. In Rome for the 50th anniversary of the opening of the 1960 Summer Olympics, he was given the honor of making a speech representing the athletes of the world who competed 50 years ago.

Bragg, the Rome Olympics pole vault gold medalist, culminated his speech with his trademark Tarzan yell. It was greeted by a standing ovation from more than 5,000 people in the Rome city hall square, Palazzo Senatorio, surrounded by Michelangelo sculptures.

During the 1960 Summer Olympics, the United States and Soviet Union were competing in athletics at the height of the Cold War, which thankfully never got quite as heated as the battles on the sports fields. Even though the 1960 U.S. team included such legendary figures as basketball’s Jerry West and Oscar Robertson, decathlete Rafer Johnson, boxer Cassius Clay (Muhammad Ali), sprinter Wilma Rudolph and discus thrower Al Oerter – all winning gold medals – the USA finished well behind the Soviet Union for gold medals and total medals.

Due to a conflict with a Rome Olympics reunion event planned by the U.S. Olympic Committee for the same time in Tennessee, Bragg was the only American athlete this August in Rome. He was treated as a returning hero and celebrity. “I was a rock star,” reports the never bashful 75-year-old.

Returning home to sweetheart
When Bragg traveled to Rome with the American track and field team 50 years ago, he went “to compete against the best in the world” and didn’t want “any distractions” – which meant sweetheart Theresa Fiore stayed home in New Jersey.

“We dated for seven years, but he always told me: ‘I won’t put gold on your finger until they put gold around my neck,’ ’’ Theresa Bragg says today from the Clayton home they share with daughters Renee and Tracey and four grandkids.

Bragg won the Olympic gold medal on Sept. 7, 1960. Days later, Theresa read a newspaper article which quoted him saying he was headed home to marry his sweetheart. They wed two months after the Rome Olympics and left for California, where he hoped to play Tarzan in the movies like his hero Johnny Weissmuller, another Olympic champion. Sadly, that dream never materialized.

In that era, all Olympic athletes were amateurs so Bragg retired from the sport one year after the Olympics. “I dabbled in a number of businesses but found recreation to be my calling,” he explained.

He served as special assistant for youth affairs and recreation to New Jersey Gov. Richard Hughes.

Don and Theresa Bragg ran Kamp Olympik for boys each summer in southern New Jersey. The camp hosted 300 boys a week for nine weeks in the summer.

“Many of the kids came from tough ghettos, but we gave them a great experience,” Bragg says. “We still get notes from many of them. In fact, we got a message this week on Facebook from one who is now mentoring boys himself.”
The Braggs lost their home in Clayton in 2004 in a devastating fire that also destroyed much of their memorabilia, although a fireman retrieved the Olympic gold medal from the smoke-filled house.

They moved to Southern California where they lived in a senior community until Don suffered a stroke on Father’s Day 2009. They moved back to Clayton to be around family as he continued his rehab.

These days, Bragg can be found in Clayton working out at Snap Fitness several days a week.

Friends step up to make trip possible
The invitations for both the U.S. Olympic Committee and Rome Olympic reunions didn’t make their way to the Braggs until mid-July. They weren’t in a position to pay the more than $5,000 in airfare to go to Rome. But a “dear friend” told them, “You’re not going to miss this. You’ve done so much good with your camp that we want to sponsor you.”

The friends paid the tab and the Braggs were off for a two-week trip to Italy.

They spent four unforgettable days in the Italian capital. Rome is in the running to host the 2020 Olympic Games, so the country went all out to make the world’s athletes welcome. More than 25 nations were represented. The reunion’s Opening Ceremonies, 50 years to the day after the Rome Olympics began on Aug. 25, 1960, were held at City Hall, formerly a castle, with an outdoor stage in front of a giant video screen.

The ceremony opened with speeches by local dignitaries followed by then Italian gold medal boxer Giovanni Benvenuti’s greeting to all the athletes. The, Bragg took the podium.

The Braggs had provided Don’s five-minute speech in advance so that translators could prepare for it. Each athlete was given a headset so they could get a translation of the speeches.

Bragg, speaking for all the athletes who competed in 1960, brought many to tears as he declared, “We want to bring the games back to the Eternal City, ” and called Rome his “second home.”

He spoke of the thrill of having the gold medal around his neck and hearing his national anthem. “In that moment, so many emotions flow through your body … You want to cry, laugh and yell, so I expressed myself in my own crazy way … For after all, that was and is our moment in time,” Bragg said.

He then let out his signature Tarzan yell one more time, just as he’d done on the medal stand a half century before. Many in the audience answered back with their own yells.

“I had to wait for things to calm down before I left the stage,” he reports.

“The whole experience was beyond words. It was almost like Hollywood with all the lights, cameras, excitement,” Theresa Bragg says.

Athlete’s unlikely beginnings
As a young boy growing up in New Jersey across the river from Delaware, Don loved Tarzan movies starring Weissmuller. He would swing on ropes from trees imitating his screen idol. One day, he picked up a bamboo pole behind a furniture store and thus began his vaulting career.

By the time he was a high school senior, the school was able to raise enough money to buy him an aluminum pole, as bamboo poles were becoming outmoded. He increased his best leap by two feet, earning a scholarship to Villanova University near Philadelphia.

He became an elite pole vaulter who figured to make the 1956 Olympic team before injuring himself at the collegiate championships. He vaulted through college and then entered the U.S. Army while continuing to compete internationally. “I traveled to Scandinavia, throughout Europe, the Middle East and Africa,” he recalls.

In 1959, he set the indoor world record in the pole vault. “As I entered the arena in Philadelphia, someone told me it was Friday the 13th, which was bad luck. I told him, ‘Yeah, bad luck for everyone else,’ ’’ Bragg says while explaining with a twinkle in his eye that he was always “very humble.”

At the 1960 U.S. Olympic Trials at Stanford, the 25-year-old Bragg set an outdoor world record of 4.8 meters (15 feet, 9 inches) and he was off to Rome as the gold medal favorite. In a grueling six-hour long Olympic final on Sept. 7, Bragg won gold with a best leap of 4.7 meters (15-5). American teammate Ronnie Morris was second and Finnish vaulter Eeles Landstrom third.

Landstrom was at the Rome reunion and the former rivals shared a heartwarming embrace. “We hadn’t seen each other since we got off the medal stand, but we were still in competition – comparing the many ailments we’ve had over the years. Both of us have had a stroke and heart bypass,” Bragg says, adding that Morris also had a stroke.
Another old friend Bragg saw in Rome was Ron Delany, a roommate at Villanova and 1956 Olympic gold medalist for Ireland in the 1500 meters.

The day after the ceremony, the Braggs headed out on their own to the Stadio Olimpico where the track and field events were held. A large contingent of media was there for another story, but when the press found out Bragg was on hand he was mobbed and ended up on the front page of Italian newspapers the next day. He also cut the ribbon at the grand opening of the new Olympic Museum in Rome.

After four days, the “rock star” and his wife became just regular tourists, sightseeing and visiting the birthplace village of Theresa’s father.

Jay Bedecarré
Jay Bedecarré
Sports and Schools Editor at The Concord Clayton Pioneer | | Website

Jay Bedecarré is a long-time resident and writer in Concord and Clayton. He began his newspaper writing career while still a senior at Mt. Diablo High School and he has been part of The Pioneer since its inception in 2003. Jay also operates Bay Area Festivals, presenting events around the San Francisco Bay Area including Bay Area KidFest annually in Downtown Concord.