A rock pile ceases to be a rock pile the moment a single man contemplates it, bearing within him the image of a cathedral.

― Antoine de Saint-Exupery

The Greatest Comeback in Olympic History

Ever feel so behind that catching up to last place seems impossible? What if not only you could catch up, but you could win?

That’s what Dave Wottle did. He was dead last for 500 meters of an 800-meter race. Not just any race, but the Munich 1972 Olympic Games.

Elite 800m athletes finish in well under two minutes. That means Wottle arguably already lost the race not long after the gun went off. He simply didn’t have time to catch up. The race was too fast and he was too far behind. Anyone watching surely felt bad for the guy in the white hat.

The other runners were all excellent athletes racing at world class speeds. The eight fastest 800m runners in the world were all in one race.

It happens, doesn’t it? We might start out slow. Maybe we didn’t go to an Ivy League university. Maybe we grew up on the poor side of town. Maybe we just didn’t take our career seriously. Now, we’re three steps behind in a two step race.

Wottle’s situation was exactly that. His training was hindered by tendinitis in his knees. And when the race started, he started out slow. All he dreamed of doing was going to end right there.

Except he didn’t give up.

Why should he give up? There was nothing to lose. If he could just get a little effort in, he just might snag seventh place. Or sixth if he was lucky.

Step-by-step, Wottle worked his way forward. At 500m, he sidled up next to seventh place. At 550m, he passed sixth place. He didn’t pass fifth place until halfway around the last curve. Moments later, fourth place was behind him. Franz-Josef Kemper held strong, but Wottle passed him with just 50m to go.

A bronze medal looked miraculously possible. Beyond that, though, what could be done? The amazing Yevhen Arzhanov and incredible Mike Boit weren’t going to slow down. He had already accomplished what couldn’t be done. Wasn’t that enough?

With 20m to the finish line, he pushed again, or still, and now, Boit was just behind him. Not by much but enough.

He pressed on.

With everything he had, Wottle kept on. Arzhanov dove to the line, hoping to find some space ahead of Wottle, but Wottle prevailed.

He finished in first place for the gold medal in 1:45.86. He won by nine inches.

Now he has a gold medal and one of the greatest comebacks in sports history. Why? He tried. There was no reason not to.

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