Then: Going for Gold at the ‘Austerity Games’

Big Ten champion hurdler William Porter (WCAS47, Nav47) saved his best home track performance for the 1948 Olympic track and field trials at Northwestern’s Dyche Stadium (now Ryan Field) in July 1948. The naval trainee from Jackson, Mich., beat the nation’s best hurdlers, including favorite and fellow future Olympian Harrison Dillard, with a record-breaking 13.9-second finish in the 110-meter hurdles.

Porter, who died in March 2000, was among 50 of the day’s competitors to qualify for the 1948 Olympic Games. He joined fellow Wildcats Harold Dash (SESP39) and Jerry Miller (WCAS35), who made the U.S. water polo team, and swimmer William Heusner (WCAS49, GSESP52) on the Olympic roster that year.

By 1948 Northwestern had sent athletes to every Olympic competition since 1924, but the 1948 games were different. The backdrop of postwar London, with reminders of the German blitzkrieg, caused high expectations and higher anxieties as more than 4,000 athletes from 59 nations came together to recover from World War II. Athletes stayed in Spartan accommodations. Porter roomed in a one-story brick barrack on a Royal Air Force base during the “Austerity Games.”

None of that slowed Porter, who established an Olympic record with his gold medal–winning time of 13.9 seconds in the 110-meter hurdles at London’s Wembley Stadium. With the victory, Porter joined track star Betty Robinson Schwartz (SESP34) and swimmers Sybil Bauer (C26) and Bob Skelton (WCAS26) as one of Northwestern’s Olympic gold medalists.

Since Porter’s victory, Northwestern has sent nearly a dozen alumni athletes to compete at the Olympics. Hopefuls for the 2012 London Games include wrestler Jake Herbert (C09) and swimmers Mike Alexandrov (WCAS08, FSM09) and Matt Grevers (C09), who won an individual silver at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing.

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