"He kept a kind of low profile—not the kind of guy you would ever figure to be President of the United States. He was very nice and pleasant. Nothing struck me as dynamic or outstanding. He was no star. Steady, a plugger, backup." So said Nathaniel Heller, Class of '47, U.S. Naval Academy, speaking of his classmate and teammate, Jimmy Carter, 39th President of the United States.
This fall will mark an anniversary of sorts in Carter's brief, and unexceptional, athletic career; 35 years ago the President was a member of the Academy's undefeated plebe cross-country team, which The Log, the midshipmen's magazine, described, with pardonable hyperbole, as "one of the finest in Naval Academy history." The 19-year-old Carter wasn't a great cross-country man, but he was good enough to win his class numerals, as Navy swept all three meets held on its Annapolis, Md. course during the war-shortened 1943 season.
"He was always strong in the last 100, 150 yards," recalls Ellery Clark Jr., who retired last June after 38 years of coaching the plebe team and teaching history at the Academy. "He enjoyed cross-country. He trained very well. That team, including Jimmy, was one of particularly good camaraderie and spirit. He was an important member of the team."
The plebes began their sweep by trouncing Baltimore Polytechnic Institute 15-40 (the low score winning), with Carter finishing fourth over the course of just under two miles in 10:33, only three seconds behind his winning teammate, John Finneran. When asked recently whether he remembered Carter, Finneran, who not long ago retired as a vice-admiral, crisply replied, "No." Then he quickly added, "I don't know if that's senility or not."
October 22, 1978
That's not surprising. "When you run," says Heller, now an executive for a manufacturing firm in Caracas, "you don't have too much contact. You're always out of breath."
"He was just one of the guys," recalls Richard Yeatman, a retired carrier pilot who now sells real estate in Arnold, Md. "Jimmy Carter was just somebody I remember. Jack Finneran could have been President."
In their second meet, against Baltimore City College, the plebes' "camaraderie and spirit" inspired them to finish in an eight-way tie for first. The time for the entire team was 10:33, Carter thereby matching his effort against Baltimore Polytechnic.
"We all got ahead," remembers Andrew Sansom, a Navy weapons engineer from Glendora, Calif. "In the last half mile we decided to get together and screw up the record books. It was kind of fun."
"Some at the front waited until the stragglers came up," says Paul Beam, a helicopter design engineer in Indianapolis, adding that there was more to the tie than the fun of scrambling the records. "They were nice enough to wait so we could all earn our numerals."
Carter, who actually graduated in 1946 under an accelerated wartime three-year program, was one of those who received the gold 1947 numerals, which are traditionally sewn on the back of the Academy's blue bathrobes.
In the final meet, on Nov. 6, against Mercersburg Academy, the plebes once again drubbed their opponents, this time 20-35. Carter came in a mediocre seventh, though his time improved to 10:17. Thus ended his formal athletic career.
Carter's strong cross-country showing at Navy is somewhat surprising in view of the fact that his high school in Plains, Georgia, from which he graduated in a class of 14 girls and 12 boys, didn't have a track or cross-country team. Nor were there any intercollegiate athletics at Georgia Southwestern, a junior college in nearby Americus, that Carter attended next. And Carter didn't go out for sports during his brief stay at Georgia Tech, either. Where had the President learned to run?
Billy Wise, a classmate at Plains High School and Georgia Southwestern, recalls that in their last year at Plains, after practicing basketball on an outdoor dirt court, he and Carter would run home to their neighboring farms in the community of Archery, a distance of 2½ miles.
"We used to run down the railroad, a block from school," Wise says. "We ran on the crossties. It took practice. You had to keep the length of your stride right to hit the tie. Otherwise you'd get a sprained ankle. What we were mainly doing was building up our stamina. I can't think why we chose the railroad," adds Wise, explaining that the dirt road to Archery ran almost parallel to the tracks.
Carter's only other athletic achievement was playing forward—"He had a hook shot," Wise recalls—on the Plains High basketball team. During his last year in school, when his team had a losing record, Carter played one of his best games against Leesburg, scoring nine points as Plains won 23-18. At Georgia Southwestern, Carter made the intramural freshman all-star basketball team as a starting guard. One of his teammates at Southwestern, Bobby Logan, now a high school coach in Albany, Ga., remembers Carter as "about five-foot-seven, 130,135 pounds. He was a little better than average. Nothing spectacular, a steady performer. He would hustle. He never was a big scorer. I did the scoring."
Jimmy Carter certainly wasn't elected captain of the big Red, White and Blue team because of his athletic prowess. But that old determined surge in the last 100, 150 yards seems to have stood him in good stead.
When Coach Clark sent Carter a congratulatory note after his election, he received a prompt acknowledgment: "Your cross-country coaching came in handy during the last two years of my campaign."