John Woodruff – Downtown Renown

Track Star Overcame Poverty and Prejudice to Become an Olympic Gold Medalist

John Woodruff, Olympic gold medal winner and University of Pittsburgh alum, is one of 14 highlighted Pittsburgh athletes as part of the Downtown Renown: Pittsburgh Sports Greats series showcasing stories as inspirational as they are amazing. Designed in collaboration with artist Gavin Benjamin, find all sports profiles windows currently on view in windows around the neighborhood. 

John Woodruff overcame the obstacles of poverty and prejudice and embodied the strength necessary to become a world-class middle-distance runner renowned for his daring exploits in winning the 800-meter race in the 1936 Olympic Games. John’s prowess as a track athlete first became evident in high school. In his first competition for the Connellsville High School Track Team, he won both the 880 yard and mile run. By the time he graduated in 1935, he had set new school, county, WPIAL, and PIAA records. He also achieved national acclaim when he broke the high school mile record with a winning time of 4:23.4.

A Start at the University of Pittsburgh

Ironically, because he was denied employment at a local factory because of his race, he accepted a full athletic scholarship to attend the University of Pittsburgh. As a college freshman track star, he was selected to be a member of the 1936 U.S. Olympic Team after placing first in the 800- meter race at the Olympic Trials with a time of 1:49.9, a tenth of a second shy of the existing world record. His crowning achievement came in the Olympic Games in Berlin. In one of the most exciting and storied races in Olympic history, Canadian Phil Edwards set an extremely slow pace with Woodruff boxed and trapped inside by the other runners. Knowing he had to break loose, John decided his best, though most dangerous option, was to come to a stop. The move allowed the pack to run around him. Then at 6’ 3” with a stride estimated to be almost 10 feet, “Long John” Woodruff sprinted to the outside and moved to the front of the pack. Though he lost the lead on the backstretch, Woodruff regained it on the final turn to win the gold. Woodruff became one of the 18 African American members of the U.S. Team to medal in these games, joining seven others in winning gold.

After the Olympics

Woodruff also won the 1937 AAU title in the 800 and both the 400 and 800 IC4A titles from 1937 to 1939. He and his teammates on the national team set the world 4×880-yard relay record. Woodruff graduated from Pitt in 1939 with a major in sociology, then earned his master’s degree from NYU in 1941. He entered military service in 1941 as a second lieutenant and was discharged as a Captain in 1945, then re-upped during the Korean War, leaving as a lieutenant colonel in 1957. Woodruff served as the battalion commander of the 369th Artillery, later the 569 Transportation Battalion New York Army National Guard.

After the War, Woodruff lived in New York and then in New Jersey and coached young athletes and officiated at local and Madison Garden track meet and working as a teacher and in public service. He is remembered in his hometown where the oak tree sapling from Germany’s Black Forest he was given to commemorate his victory in Berlin towers over the end zone at Connellsville stadium. Each year the town holds the annual John Woodruff 5-K Run and Walk in his honor.

Learn more about the history of sports in Pittsburgh from the Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum at the Heinz History Center.

This spotlight is a part of the Downtown Renown: Pittsburgh Sports Greats series. Learn more about the project, and look for all 14 sports profile windows in Downtown!

Explore all the featured athletes

Arnold PalmerBill MazeroskiCharles “Chuck” CooperDan McCoyFranco HarrisHonus WagnerJoe GreeneJohn WoodruffJosh GibsonMario LemieuxRoberto ClementeSuzie McConnell-SerioSwin CashSidney Crosby

“John Woodruff,” 2020
by Gavin Benjamin

📍 View this Pittsburgh Sports Great window installation at 420 Wood Street, Downtown Pittsburgh.

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