A not so funny thing happened to Dave Romansky last Sunday morning in Glen Cove, N.Y., where he went to try to break the American record in the 50-kilometer walk. There wasn't a soul in sight. Five hours later Roman-sky, a 32-year-old, $150-a-week pipe insulator for duPont, learned the race had been held in Brookville, N.Y., four miles away. Listen, it could've been worse. Romansky has already broken 13 American and three world records this year, including the 50 kilometers.
While race walking is a laughing matter for many, for Dave Romansky it has been a means of changing a life that began in Penns Grove, N.J. and seemed to be leading no farther than Pennsville, N.J., seven miles away, where he now lives with his wife Dot and their three children. "I'd never been to New York City or on an airplane until I was 26," he says.
Six years ago Romansky was working in a warehouse, growing prematurely middle-aged from boredom and prematurely fat from drinking too many beers in front of too many TV shows. His brother, a schoolteacher who runs to keep in shape, encouraged him to take up distance running to lose weight, but he was, as he admits, "terrible." In 1964 he finished 28th in a field of 30 in a four-mile road race. In the 1966 Boston Marathon, in which he was beaten by a 23-year-old girl, he made it to the finish line only because an old lady shouted at him, "You keep running, young man!"
The following year it was suggested that he switch to walking, which he was just about doing anyway. The effect was as if Mozart had been hacking around with, say, sculpture until somebody said, "Hey, Wolfgang, did you ever think of giving the harpsichord a whirl?" In his first big race Romansky finished fourth, and two years after he took up the sport he set his first American record.
November 23, 1970
He was off to the 1968 Olympic Trials—if he could get up the dough to get to South Lake Tahoe. The Pennsville Junior Chamber of Commerce came to the rescue with a Dave Romansky Olympic Fund. (Raising money for trips is always a hassle, but Romansky's neighbors rally round. A travel agent extends credit; a gas station owner keeps the family car in gas and does free repairs; a grocer donates $150 worth of food; Romansky himself goes from door to door, ringing bells, saying, "Hi, I'm Dave Romansky, and....")
While the Dave Romansky Olympic Fund was swelling, so were Dave Romansky's feet. He walked 80 miles a week in the winter, 100 to 125 miles in warmer weather. The training paid off, and Romansky made the Olympic team in the 50-kilometer walk. Unfortunately, in Mexico City, he came down with the flu four days before his event and finished 26th. "It was 80°," he recalls, "and I was so cold I wore a jacket."
Returning home, he found that the folks in Pennsville were still behind him. He was asked to speak at Lions Club banquets. He coached youngsters in running. The New Jersey Jaycees presented him with their Physical Fitness Leadership Award. The Pennsville Jaycees named him the Outstanding Citizen of the Year. He received letters of congratulations from Pennsylvania Governor Raymond Shafer and Philadelphia Mayor James Tate. These letters hang on a wall of the Romansky living room, along with a note from President Nixon thanking him for his endorsement in 1968.
Without a college education, Roman-sky's search for a better job has been futile. He was refused a position at the Penns Grove YMCA because he didn't have a degree. "I took a $200-a-month pay cut at duPont to switch from driving a truck so I could have weekends off to train and work with the kids," he says. He has to leave his house at 7:15 a.m. to be on the job, returning in the late afternoon and leaving again to work out until after 8. "Then he eats, goes to sleep and gets up again," says Dot.
His house is small, the payments hard to meet. Dot stocks the freezer with weekly grocery specials, makes stew, orders the children's clothes from a Sears catalog. She just bought their daughter Denise, 7, a new yellow nightgown. It won't fit her for a few years, but it only cost $2.
Dave Romansky is patriotic as well as hard-working and thrifty. He was stunned when his employer called walking a hobby. "It ceases to be a hobby when you represent your country," Romansky says, "but they don't understand that." He speaks with emotion of a recent trip to Germany. "I carried the flag in the opening ceremony—the first time for a walker. I asked them if they didn't just want me to hold it for a second, or if there were some mistake. But they meant it. It was the proudest moment of my life."
Although he has to take time off from his job without pay for trips—time that is subtracted from his pension—Romansky refused an invitation to join the New York Athletic Club, one of the few clubs that helps its athletes financially. "I don't like their politics," says Romansky, a registered Republican. "Between not letting in Jews and not letting in Negroes, I couldn't go back to the track club and tell those kids anything if I did that."
So his wife shrugs as she throws his dirty track suit in the washing machine. "It's not easy to go without money every time he goes away when you have three kids," Dot says, "but I wouldn't ask him to give it up when he's doing so well."