Friday, December 1, 2006

Nieder’s passion leads him to Hall

Former KU and Olympic star earns spot among track and field's best


He walked along the streets of Melbourne, Australia, but didn't see the car coming. Bill Nieder, fresh off an appearance at the 1956 Olympics, dodged the reckless taxi driver and got out of the way.

That was a close one.

But according to Nieder, the taxi driver made sure Nieder and his three friends heard his opinion on them being "bloody Americans." Let's just say that didn't exactly sit too well with Nieder.

"We stopped his car and tipped it upside down," Nieder, now 73, said. "After 1956, I was told by the Olympic officials at the time that it'd be my last Olympics."

It wasn't his last, though. Nieder's bad-boy, smash-mouth, in-your-face image preceded the infamous Oakland Raiders of the 1970s and Detroit Pistons of the late '80s/early '90s.

"He was the original rebel," his wife Sharon said.

Nieder won a silver medal in the shot put in the 1956 Olympics and was a virtual lock for the 1960 Olympics in Rome, where he won a gold medal. No one kept him out, even if he had to fight his way in.

On Saturday, Nieder will be inducted into the National Track and Field Hall of Fame in Indianapolis.

"This is one of the best experiences of my life," Nieder said. "I never thought I'd actually get in."

Nieder, who grew up in Lawrence and attended Kansas University, made his presence felt in the shot put at an early age. Most notably, he holds the Lawrence High shot put record of 60 feet, 9 3/8 inches - which once stood as a national prep record. The LHS record still stands in Nieder's name after 54 years.

"I think it will be broken - absolutely," said Nieder, now an Angels Camp, Calif., resident. "I'll even fly back from here and take the boy that breaks my record out to dinner."

Nieder said the reasons he thought the mark would eventually be broken stem from advanced weighlifting techniques that weren't around in his high school days, and better coaching.

The story of how Nieder overcame adversity to still capture Olympic gold is simply remarkable. In his days at KU, he wasn't just a shot put athlete. He also was an outstanding discus thrower with Al Oerter, a four-time Olympic gold medalist in the discus, as a friend and colleague.

Nieder also played football, as a big, fast middle linebacker and center. He earned high school All-America honors at Lawrence High and was considered a cinch for college stardom at Kansas. But when KU faced TCU in the 1953 season opener, Nieder, making his long-heralded debut as a sophomore, suffered a major leg injury.

"I never saw it coming at all," Nieder recalled. "Two plays before the half, I was blindsided. The play was over when it happened and I was completely relaxed. My leg penetrated into the turf while I had cleats on and everything came to a stop. I would say it was a cheap shot because the play was over."

Nieder was taken to the KU Medical Center hospital in Kansas City, where doctors told him they might have had to amputate his right leg.

"I was told by the doctor that my athletic career was over," Nieder said.

Nieder's family, particularly an adamant father, refused to let doctors amputate his leg. After nearly eight hours of surgery and the constant support of Dean Nesmith, the famed KU trainer of 50 years, Nieder felt confident he and his family made the proper decision.

A painful, rigorous rehabilitation saw Nieder letting the widely noted Nesmith control the process. Nieder said Phog Allen, who coached Kansas basketball for 39 years, also helped greatly. Nieder noted how Allen was well-known for his osteopathic manipulation to cure ailing athletes.

The rehab went so well that Nieder won the aforementioned silver medal in 1956 after tremendous preparation efforts.

Right before the 1960 Olympic trials, Nieder said he hurt his right knee water skiing and only placed in the trials. He didn't initially qualify to return to the Olympics in 1960 but was kept as an alternate. Three track meets remained before the team took off for Rome. Nieder proceeded to place first in the shot put in all three meets. In the third one, he broke the world record with a 65-foot, 10-inch throw. He had battled his way, in typical Nieder fashion, into the rotation.

"Peyton Jordan, the Stanford track coach at the time, gave me a call at 3 a.m. and said I was on the Olympic team," Nieder said. "I became the first alternate ever to get a gold medal in the shot put."

Nieder has lived in Angels Camp with Sharon, 63, for a year and a half now. Before that, he lived in Mountain Ranch, Calif., for 20 years. Bill and Sharon have been married for nearly 26 years.

Bill had a lucrative career as a salesman for synthetic athletic surfacings, such as AstroTurf, then later got deeply involved in selling and setting up restraining areas, sometimes referred to as "rubber rooms," for agencies such as mental hospitals and prisons. He traveled the world over in this venture and gained a wide reputation for his expertise and advice.

"He still has the mind of a 30-year-old," Sharon said. "It's hard to believe he's 73."

Nieder said he hadn't picked up a shot in six or seven years. When he goes to the Hall of Fame in Indianapolis, he'll again have to handle the 16-pound ball for a little while, though.

"I'm giving the shot that I broke the world record with to the Hall of Fame," Nieder said.


FlaHawk 12 years, 7 months ago

Bill was a tremednous individual. They don't make like this any more. I saw him throw the shot a few times and as a discus thrower he was near world class. KU really had the track teams back in the late 50s and early 60s.

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