Penn State track and field legend, Olympic champion Ashenfelter passes

January 08, 2018

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Penn State Intercollegiate Athletics mourns the passing of Horace Ashenfelter III, former Nittany Lion track and field standout who set a world record in winning the men’s steeplechase at the 1952 Olympic Games. He passed away Saturday, Jan. 6, in West Orange, New Jersey, at the age of 94.

The only American to hold the world record in the men’s steeplechase, Ashenfelter achieved that feat with a stunning upset victory at the 1952 Olympic Games in Helsinki, Finland, winning the gold medal in 8:45.4. Participating in the steeplechase for just the sixth time, Ashenfelter crushed the previous steeplechase record of 9:03.8, set in the 1936 Olympics.

A three-time NCAA All-American at Penn State from 1947 to 1949, Ashenfelter was the NCAA two-mile champion in 1949 and finished second at the 1947 NCAA cross-country championships.

“We all carry heavy hearts with the passing of Horace Ashenfelter,” said John Gondak, Penn State track and field and cross-country head coach. “He was an amazing person that I was honored to have visited with a handful of times during my years at Penn State. The number of alumni who have reached out to us about his passing shows how important an individual he was to our team, our sport and our University.

“Horace will be dearly missed and remembered every day as our team practices and competes in the facility that bears his name,” Gondak added. “Penn State is honored to have the name of one of the greatest amateur athletes of the 20th century linked to our primary facility.”

Regarded one of the world’s finest indoor track and field facilities, Penn State’s indoor track inside the Multi-Sport Facility was re-named the Horace Ashenfelter III Indoor Track in 2001.

From the late 1940s until his 1957 retirement from competition, Ashenfelter won 17 national indoor and outdoor titles in a variety of races, including the aforementioned cross-country and the two-mile, as well as the three-mile, the 10,000 meters, and the steeplechase.

Ashenfelter was the recipient of the prestigious Sullivan Award as the nation’s outstanding amateur athlete of 1952 and entered the National Track and Field Hall of Fame in 1975 and the Millrose Games Hall of Fame in 2001. He also was inducted into the New Jersey Sports Hall of Fame in 1998 and the Philadelphia Sports Hall of Fame in 2012.

He was born in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, on Jan. 23, 1923. He grew up in nearby Collegeville, competed on the football, basketball, baseball and track teams at Collegeville High School, and graduated in 1941. He joined the Army Air Corps in 1942 during World War II, and became a pilot and stateside gunnery instructor.

Ashenfelter enrolled at Penn State in 1946, majoring in physical education, and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 1949.

After earning his Penn State degree, Ashenfelter began running for the New York Athletic Club and won 15 gold medals in Amateur Athletic Union competitions. The Penn Relay’s four-mile event in 1949 was won by a team that included three Ashenfelter brothers: Horace, Bill and Donald.

Four years after his historic run in Helsinki, he went to the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, Australia, representing the United States once again.

In the midst of his running career, Ashenfelter simultaneously had a career as an FBI agent, before taking a sales position. He retired in 1993 but continued to run frequently in the Glen Ridge, New Jersey, area where he lived. The town’s annual Thanksgiving Day run is named after Ashenfelter.

Ashenfelter is survived by his wife, Lillian, four sons, 12 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. One of his grandsons, William Ashenfelter, is a sophomore middle distance runner on the Penn State men’s track and field squad.

Information from The New York Times was used in this story.

Last Updated January 08, 2018