7:02 PM EDT, July 28, 2012
Holding two Olympic gold medals in his 81-year-old hands, Lindy Remigino breaks into laughter. The medals show their age. The stories do not. The stories never grow old.
"Look at these medals, I don't even know which one is which," said Remigino, who won gold in 1952 in the 100 meters and the 4x100-meter relay as a 5 feet 6, 138-pound kid from Hartford.
They came without ribbon lanyards in those July days 60 years ago, and there is nothing on them to identify the events. The boxes that once held the medals are gone, chewed up by his five children when they were little. And while there might be nicks and chips on the fading gold-plated medals, there is something Father Time and his kids' bicuspids could never take away.
"Once you're a gold medalist," Remigino said quietly in the living room of his Newington home, "you're a gold medalist forever."
He remembers the last time the Games were in London in 1948, and he remembers the stories by his father of the first time the Games were in London in 1908. Yet, what he remembers most vividly are the dreams of a 17-year-old high school junior.
"Track & Field News was first published in 1948," Remigino said. "I'd read it, seen all the names and times. My favorites were Mel Patton and Harrison Dillard. I admired them so much. Guess who passed me the baton in the relay in 1952?"
"So, yes, I dreamed of going to the Olympics in 1948. But the reality was I thought I'd be working in a box shop, making cardboard boxes, on Albany Avenue, because my family didn't have the money for college."
After 20 excruciating minutes of discussion and photo-examination to determine the 100 champion, sure, Remigino's eyes would well up as he stood atop the Olympic podium on July 21, 1952, and heard "The Star-Spangled Banner." Yet the truth is there already had been tears mixed in with the raindrops two days earlier as he watched the Americans enter Olympic Stadium with their blue blazers during the Parade of Nations, a deafening crescendo rose when Finnish legend Paavo Nurmi enter with the torch. They were the tears of a dream realized.
"I watched it all from the stands," Remigino said. "The coaches wouldn't let the 100-meter guys walk in the parade. We would have had to stand for four hours in the pouring rain on a muddy track, and we had heats the next day."
Growing up on Florence Street in the North End of Hartford, Remigino had known he was fast. He had known it since a "Play Day" race at the Hartford YMCA: Sprint to one end of the gym, touch the wall and sprint back to the finish.
"The guy handed me a ribbon and told me as soon as I get over to Hartford High to make sure I get on the track team," Remigino said. "I told him, 'I'm only 12.' He was like, wow, you just beat kids two, three years older than you by a lot."
As a junior at Hartford High, he would go on to win the 100 and 220 state and New England titles. As a senior he duplicated those feats. He played football, too, left halfback, 135 pounds soaking wet. He shakes his head no when asked if he ever told that to 1964 Olympic champion Bob Hayes, who went on to NFL fame with the Dallas Cowboys.
"No way, he would have laughed," Remigino said. "I was so light, if you hit me I landed in the first row of the stands. They called me the skinny guinea with the meatball eyes in high school."
OK, forget the NFL. There would be a scholarship to run at Manhattan College, erasing his fears that his education would end with making cardboard boxes. So sure, Lindy Remigino knew he was fast, but Olympic 100-meter gold medal fast? By the time 1952 rolled around few were betting on him after he took a fifth place in the NCAA 100 at Berkeley.
"But I also was second at the trials behind Art Bragg and I was beating everybody in the workouts leading into the Games," Remigino said.
He had arrived in Helsinki a few weeks before the Olympics on a first class flight, compliments of the New York Athletic Club. When the world's athletes arrived, however, they found themselves in different camps. This was the first Olympics for the Russians since 1912 and the Cold War was never colder. A separate Olympic Village, surrounded by barbed wire, was set up for the Eastern bloc athletes. A huge portrait of Stalin hung from one of the buildings.
So what does a young man think about in the hours and minutes before the Olympic finals? Well, Remigino thought about his mom, about June Haverty the love of his young life and about his dad who had died a few years earlier. Stefano Remigino had left northern Italy for England at 17. He regaled Lindy with stories about the 1908 London Olympics, about being in the stands for the marathon when Dorando Pietri of Italy collapsed in the final yards and his gold medal was taken away after being helped across the finish line. A chef, Stefano would travel to South Africa before moving to New York, starting an American family and eventually settling in Hartford.
Yes, there was plenty to think about following the semifinals after he finished second by inches behind Herb McKenley of Jamaica. Bragg had pulled out of the semis with a hamstring injury and suddenly anything was possible.
"I was laying in the locker room on a table, thinking, and Herb walked in," Remigino said. "He said, 'I was just with Emmanuel Bailey [of Great Britain]. He's so nervous. I think he's out of the way."
So what does a young man hear in the seconds before he meets Olympic immortality? Well, first he could hear the Italian delegation he had befriended and shared pasta fazool with, shouting his last name. Yet as 80,000 fans became one great wall of silence, Remigino would hear only this: "Paikoillane!" Remigino shouts 60 years later. "Valmiit!"
They are the starter's commands in Finnish.
Remigino burst from Lane 3. He had a good start and it was only getting better. With 40 meters left, he clearly was in the lead. With 20 meters left, he made a terrible mistake.
"I'm thinking, 'I'm going to win this thing,'" Remigino said. "I started leaning for the tape with my chest. What happens when you lean is your steps get shorter and shorter."
In Lane 2, immediately to his left, McKenley was closing with an enormous finish. They hit the tape and Remigino saw the long, tall Jamaican flash past him.
"I thought I blew it," Remigino said. "I'm a smart sprinter. And I blew it. I congratulated Herb. I told him, "I think you won.'"
Remigino was wrong. Remigino, McKenley, Bailey and American Dean Smith all were timed in 10.4 seconds, the fifth and sixth finishers in 10.5. The judges said Remigino had won.
"The protest came from the coach of the Jamaican team, Joe Yancey," Remigino said. "I knew him well. He also was the coach of the Pioneer Club of New York."
The photo-finish was examined carefully, painfully. Twenty excruciating minutes passed. It seemed like 20 hours. With a turn of his right shoulder, it was determined Remigino had hit the tape first.
"My name flashed on the scoreboard," Remigino said. "It felt like somebody had electrocuted me."
None of his family was in Helsinki to rejoice with him. They couldn't afford it. Notes of joy would be shared by telegram. So how did Remigino celebrate?
"Well, they only gave us $1.76 a day spending money, so I couldn't go too far," Remigino said. "Plus, I had the relay to run."
Just like that, Red Smith, then of the New York Herald Tribune, and Harold Abrahams, the 1924 Olympic champion and longtime British journalist who would be immortalized in the movie "Chariots Of Fire," were fighting to talk to him in the post-race frenzy. Which leads to a story and a laugh.
"We went in and sat at this long table," Remigino said. "Abrahams goes, 'Lindy, I want to talk to you …' Red Smith interrupted him, 'Oh, no you're not. He's American. I'm an American.' Red wanted the first question."
Just like that, he was the World's Fastest Human, the title bestowed on the 100-meter Olympic champion.
"I knew I was damn fast, but I never believed I was the fastest human," Remigino said. "I'm going to be very honest with you. Yes, I won the 100 meter. Yes, I was ranked No. 1 in the world in 1952. I won all my races after that. But fastest human? Jimmy Golliday from Northwestern was injured and couldn't run. I believe he was."
Remigino was the fastest on that July day and he would win a second gold medal a few days later as the powerful Americans Smith, Dillard, Remigino and Andy Stanfield roared to relay victory over the Soviet Union.
"I'll say it," Remigino said. "We could have dropped the stick and still won."
After the Olympics he remained in Europe and raced. Amsterdam, Oslo, Edinburgh, London. He kept winning. He tied Jesse Owens' record of 10.2 in the 100 (only to get a letter in the mail a month later that based on a wind gauge the record was not ratified). When Remigino landed at Idlewild Airport in New York, arrangements were quickly in place for a parade in Hartford. Remigino had been named after Charles Lindbergh and it was fitting. Only Lindbergh and Gen. John J. Pershing had received the city's medallion of honor before Remigino.
The parade went down Main Street, past the Remigino home, past the G. Fox Building to the Hartford Times portico. Lindy rode in a Cadillac convertible with his mom and his fiancee, waving as people chanted his name.
"When we got to the portico, there was Art McGinley of The Hartford Times and Bill Lee of The Hartford Courant," Remigino said. "Mayor [Domenick] DeLucco was there and Gov. [John] Lodge was dressed all in his white. He was an actor. His wife was from Italy. All the political dignitaries were there. I was overwhelmed. I stood up — and my speech sat down. I got something out like, 'Thank you so much for this wonderful day.' I was too nervous to continue."
He also was too nervous to go the White House with other Olympians to meet President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
"I'm a nervous guy," he jokes.
Sixty years later, after spending the bulk of his career coaching track and cross country at Hartford Public High School and directing a number of prestigious high school meets, Remigino's mind is sharp. Giving a tour of all the photos in his home, he easily recounts names and times. He even stops to run down the starting lineups of both the Red Sox and Cardinals from the 1946 World Series. Lindy sounds good. He looks good.
"Thanks," he said. "I have two new titanium hips."
They have gotten him back on the golf course. He may be the 100-meter gold medalist forever, but his humor will forever remain self-deprecating. He may have beaten the world on July 21, 1952, but he quickly points out that he has never beaten his wife of 59 years in a round of golf.
Remigino would meet defending 100-meter Olympic champion and world record holder Usain Bolt in 2009 when the Jamaican visited the Sportsmen's Club on Main Street. Remigino, who befriended McKenley, had visited Jamaica three times and is no stranger to that sprint-mad island nation.
"I barely came up to Usain's shoulder," Remigino said. "I asked him, 'How tall are you?' He said 6-5. He asked me, 'How tall are you?' I said 5-6 and shrinking. He's the tallest guy to win the 100 gold. I think I'm the shortest."
I saw both men that night on Main Street. Lindy's wrong. They both stood 10 feet tall.
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