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Five-Time Olympian Col. Willie Davenport Remembered

By Master Sgt. Bob Haskell
Special to American Forces Press Service

ARLINGTON, Va., June 20, 2002 – Army National Guard Col. Willie Davenport believed until the day he died that determined and promising young athletes should have the same chances he had to fulfill their Olympic dreams.

That was how friends and colleagues remembered the five- time Olympian and 1968 gold medalist June 19, the day after his death from a reported heart attack shocked the National Guard family, Army sports officials and the U.S. Olympic community.

The Associated Press reported Davenport, 59, collapsed June 17 at O'Hare International Airport and was pronounced dead at the Resurrection Medical Center in Chicago. He had been returning to his Northern Virginia home from a National Guard adjutants general conference in Boise, Idaho. Funeral arrangements are pending.

Davenport had been chief of the National Guard Bureau's Office of Sports Management since September 1999, and he was planning to retire before his 60th birthday next June. He had coached the All-Army men's and women's track teams to an unprecedented four undefeated seasons from 1993-96.

Davenport, whose own Olympic career spanned a remarkable 16 years, was responsible for getting the National Guard's sports program validated by the Army so that it could be funded with $4 million for four years beginning in 2003, said Chief Warrant Officer Dennis Loy.

That funding has been increased to $8 million for five years beginning in 2004, added Loy, who worked with Davenport for two and a half years.

"This program would not have gotten off the ground had it not been for Willie Davenport," he said. He explained that 3,000 National Guard athletes are participating in biathlon and bobsledding, marathon racing, parachuting, and marksmanship programs sponsored by the National Guard Bureau.

Utah Army Guard soldier Jill Bakken won a gold medal in women's bobsledding and Mike Kohn from Virginia and Dan Steele from Oregon won bronze medals in men's bobsledding during the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics in February. Five of the eight members of the U.S. men's and women's biathlon teams were in the Army Guard.

All but two of the guardsmen were part of the Army's World Class Athlete Program, but their success convinced Davenport that National Guard athletes could hold their own in international arenas just as he had done when he was younger.

He was, for example, one of just eight Americans to compete in both the Summer and Winter Olympics.

Born in Troy, Ala., he was the oldest in a family of seven children, and he became a state high school hurdling champion in Ohio before joining the Army in 1962 and making the Army track team.

Davenport made the 1964 U.S. Olympic team for the Tokyo Games where he advanced to the semifinals in the high hurdles. Leaving the Army to study physical education at Southern University A&M in Baton Rouge, La., he made the U.S. team for the 1968 Mexico Games and won his gold medal in the 110-meter hurdles.

The man nicknamed "Breeze" finished fourth during the 1972 Summer Games in Munich. He took the bronze medal during the Montreal Games in 1976, when he was 33 and after he had recovered from a severe knee injury.

He became one of two African Americans to first make the U.S. bobsled team for the 1980 Games in Lake Placid, N.Y. Davenport's four-man team finished 12th in his fifth and final Olympics.

Davenport was honored as one of this country's 100 Golden Olympians before the 1996 Centennial Olympics in Atlanta. He was a vice president of the U.S. Olympic Alumni Association when he died.

"Competing in five Olympics was phenomenal," said Paulette Freese, manager of the Army's World Class Athlete Program since 1994. "And he didn't just show up. He brought back the medals. He was a winner."

Davenport never forgot his roots, she added. "He gave the Army credit for his medals and for much of the success he achieved in his life.

"Colonel Davenport was always a strong advocate for Army sports, not just for the National Guard soldiers but for all Army athletes," she continued. "He never gave up the battle when it came to fighting for the rights and for funding for the soldiers.

"He really relished working with young people and helping them along," Loy said. "He understood how the Army's sports program worked. We patterned our National Guard Bureau office after the Army's program."

Davenport received a direct commission after joining the Louisiana Army Guard in 1981. He was a National Guard community relations officer for nearly five years, and he commanded the Oregon Army Guard's 741st Corps Support Battalion for 19 months until September 1998.

The fast tracks where athletes run in the summer and slide in bobsleds during the winter were important to him, but so were the young athletes. Just one indication of Davenport's commitment to America's youth, Loy said, was an annual celebrity golf tournament he held in Oregon. The proceeds provided college scholarships for young women, he noted.

Davenport is survived by a daughter, Tanya Davenport Morris of Monroe, La., and two sons, Willie Davenport Stewart Jr. of Youngstown, Ohio, and Mark Davenport of Baton Rouge, La. He was engaged to Barbara Henry of Louisiana.

(Master Sgt. Bob Haskell is assigned to National Guard Bureau headquarters in Arlington, Va.)

 

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