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WES SANTEE Kansas University 1951 - 1954
Born: March 25, 1932 died November 14, 2010
A 1952 Olympian who competed in the 5,000 meters at the Games in Helsinki, Santee is most known for his prowess in the mile and 1,500 meters. One of a handful of competitors considered to be a serious threat to break the four-minute mile barrier before it happened in 1954, Santee set the world record in the 1,500 meters on June 4, 1956, when he was timed in 3 minutes, 42.8 seconds at the Compton Invitational. Santee also set the indoor mile world record twice (4:04.9-1954 & 4:03.8-1955), and the indoor 1,500m world record once in 1955 (3:48.3). Known for his versatility as a collegiate star at the University of Kansas, on April 10, 1954, Santee had an amazing three-race performance against the University of California at Berkeley, where he won the 880y in 1:51.5, the mile in 4:05.5, and ran a 440 relay leg in 48-flat. As a Jayhawk, Santee won the NCAA outdoor mile title in 1953, the NCAA 5,000m crown in 1952, and the NCAA cross country title in 1953. The national indoor mile champion in 1955, Santee captured USA Outdoor 1500m/Mile crowns in 1952, 1953y and 1955. He was world ranked by Track & Field News in the 800 meters in 1953 (#2), 1954 (#8) & 1955 (#6); and in the 1,500 meters in 1953 (#2), 1954 (#3) & 1955 (#7). Santee currently resides in Eureka, Kansas.
Marine Corps/Insurance business
NEWSPAPER ARTICLE, 2000
ARTICLE IN THE PRESCOTT, ARIZ. PAPER
The U.S. hasn't won an Olympic gold medal in the men's metric mile since 1908 and doesn't figure to alter that condition in the fest in Sydney, Australia, that begins next week. But when couldas, wouldas and shouldas of that lamentable dearth are rehashed, the name of Wes Santee always comes up. One of the world's best milers of the 1950's, he never got to an Olympic starting line in the event, for reason that ring stranger with each passing year.
Santee, now 68 years old and retired in this high-desert town north of Phoenix, talked about them the other day, and while he's as cognizant as anyone about what's been happening in sports in recent decades, he couldn't help marveling about the extent of some of those changes.
"People like to complain about the way athletes are able to call their own shots these days, and I confess it sometimes bothers me, too. But if you knew how things were when I competed, you have to conclude that some serious getting even is going on, " he says with a half smile.
When Santee competed, track and field was a much bigger sport in this land than it is today, and the mile was track's glamour event. That was thanks largely to Glenn Cunningham, the young man from Kansas who survived injuries suffered in a schoolhouse fire to hold the world's record in the event in the 1930s but came up second in the 1,500 meters at the 1936 Olympics. Santee was a Kansan too, from a ranch outside the small town of Ashland in the southeast part of the state.
He ran, he says, because he like to, and because he saw track as a way to get to college and live in a larger world than the one in which he grew up. His father regarded athletics as fluff and allowed him to run in high school meets only if they didn't conflict with his chores at home. So he woke before dawn, put in two hours of ranch work before school and after school, worked until dark. Recognizing his talent, his high school coach let him skip team practice and do his track workouts during study hall. "I was the workingest kid you ever say, and one skinny, strong SOB," says Santee, who, at 6-foot-1, weighed about 140 pounds during his salad days, and not much more now.
He also was one of the runningest; in 1952, as a 19 year old sophomore at Kansas University, which he attended on scholarship, he ran a 14 mile race on the highway between Tonganoxie and Lawrence, Kansas, against 28 of his fraternity brothers running a half mile each, and won handily. Life magazine covered it.
He did as well running on standard ovals and showed up at the 1952 U.S.Olympic Trials favored to qualify in both the 1,500 and 5,000-meter races. The 5,000 meters came first, and he earned a team berth with a second place finish. The next day, still feeling chipper, he lined up for the final in the 1,500, his specialty, but was literally pulled from the track by a U.S. team official who informed him that it had been decided that he concentrate on the longer distance.
In the ensuing Olympics, at Helsinki Finland, Santee lost in the 5,000 meter heats, while Robert McMillen, and Occidental College runner he'd beaten often, finished second in the 1,500 by one tenth of a second to Josy Barthel of Luxembourg. Santee defeated Barthel by more than 100 yards in a subsequent mile in the U.S. "I would have worn the race," Santee says of the 52 Olympic metric mile. "I still don't know why the U.S. officials pulled me.
But Santee persevered. Two years later he was believed by many to be the man most likely to break the four minute mile barrier but, running miles, half miles and relays most every spring weekend for his college team, stood by as a fresher Englishman, Roger Bannister, gained that signal honor in May of 1954. Still, that year or the next, Santee could claim three of the four fastest miles on record, with a personal best of 4:00.5. He briefly held the 1,500 meter world mark for an intermediate clocking during a mile run.
The 1956 Olympics beckoned, but Santee never got there. In 1955, now out of school and in the Marines, he began accepting "expense" money to appear in meets in excess of the pittance the rules allowed in those days of so called amateurism, something that, he says, every other track performer of his caliber also was doing. He was a cropper when, after he turned down a San Francisco meet because of a prior commitment to a benefit race in Pennsylvania, a San Francisco newspaper ran a story that he was waxing rich off of his under the table haul. After much hemming and hawing and trial like hearing at which Santee refused to testify, the Amateur Athletic Union, which oversaw U.S. track and field at the time, suspended him for life.
The suspension, and the politics behind it, still rankle. "First, I wasn't getting rich, I was getting by. I got the same $800 to $1,000 a meet the other top guys were getting," he says. "Second, that wasn't news to the AAU, because everybody doing the paying was an AAU member or official in good standing, and stayed that way after I was tossed. I didn't testify at my hearing because I'd have been asked what I knew about what other guys were getting. If I'd had told the truth, we'd have lost half our 1956 Olympic team.
So Mr. Santee ran no more, but his life went on. He graduated from KU, completed his two year Marine hitch and opened an insurance agency in Lawrence, which he ran more than 30 years. He spent 30 years in the Marine reserves, was national president of the Marine Corps Reserve Officers Association and retired as a colonel. He served on the President's Council of Physical Fitness under several administrations.
In 1975, at age 43, the national master's meet was in Wichita, and, although he hadn't competed in 20 years, he won the 800 meter race. He still runs for exercise and runs between holes when he plays golf.
He attributes America's recent year distance running failures to a national disinclination to do the work the events entail but thinks there may be home on the horizon. "I have a grandson in Wichita who's a high school sophomore and has the makings of a good one", he says. "When I see his stride I think, 'Hey, that’s me!"'