written by Todd DePastino

Tom Courtney, Derek Johnson, and Audun Boysen at the 1956 Australia Olympic Games

America’s Tom Courtney who won the Men’s Olympic Games 800-metres Final, shakes hands with Britain’s Derek Johnson, who won silver and watched by bronze winner Norway’s Audun Boysen, in Melbourne, Australia, Nov. 26, 1956. (AP Photo)

Last week, I had the pleasure of meeting Posy Courtney of Sewickley, PA. She told me about her late husband, Tom Courtney, who served in the Army from 1955-1957.

Tom had unusual Army duty. His job was to run track. In 1956, he brought home the Olympic Gold in a dramatic come-from-behind victory in the 800m Men’s Final.

Tom wasn’t the favorite in the race, and his surge and final lunge at the tape won the race by inches.

Born in 1933 in South Orange, N.J., Tom ran at Fordham University, where he anchored the team to a world record in the two-mile relay in 1954. He set and matched other records and appeared on the cover of the May 2, 1955 issue if Sports Illustrated, baton in hand, racing toward the finish. Shortly after, the Army drafted Tom, but let him continue racing while in uniform.

In the summer of 1955, he ran meets in Europe and took time out to find the family home of Rudolf Harbig, a German middle distance runner who set records in the 400m and 800m in the 1930s.  Harbig was killed on the Eastern Front in 1944. But Tom wanted to find Harbig’s family to ask them about Rudolf’s training regimen.

Tom, who spoke the language, met with Harbig’s mother, and she showed Tom her son’s training notebooks.

The notebooks contained a tip: train downhill to increase your pace. Tom started doing just that, and he credited that technique to his big win in the Melbourne Olympics the next year.

Stepping on the track at Melbourne, Tom faced overwhelming nerves. He actually collapsed on the grass before the race, then realized how ridiculous it would look to have him lying there as the starting gun fired. He regained his composure and jogged to the starting line.

During the race, Tom Courtney trailed Arnie Sowell, the favorite, and Derek Johnson of Britain. In the final stretch, with only 40 meters to go, Courtney faced intense physical and mental agony. Despite feeling like he might not make it, he summoned his last reserves of strength and determination.

In a dramatic finish, Courtney surged past Johnson and threw himself at the tape, winning the gold medal by a mere one-tenth of a second. He collapsed after crossing the finish line, asking Johnson who had won, only to find out it was him.

The medal ceremony was delayed due to the sheer exhaustion of Courtney and Johnson. Courtney later reflected on the moment, feeling grateful that everything aligned for his victory.

Five days later, Tom Courtney secured a second gold medal by anchoring the United States to victory in the 4×400-meter relay.

Even after retiring from competitive racing at 25, Courtney maintained his passion for running, promising to run a sub-5-minute mile every year. He fulfilled this promise until his 50th birthday, impressively running a 4:36 mile.

Tom pursued a master’s degree in business administration from Harvard in 1959 and had a long career as an investor. He married Posy L’Hommedieu in 1963, had three children, and settled in Sewickley.

Tom passed away last year at the age of 90 in Naples, Florida.

“Tom was a truly remarkable man, an unusual person,” Posy told me. I look forward to learning more about him.

You can watch the thrilling race here, courtesy of a newsreel account and footage: