Penn State

Horace Ashenfelter, Penn State track standout and sports hero, dies at the age of 94

Horace Ashenfelter of the United States, right, beat out the Soviet Union to win gold in the 3,000-meter steeplechase at the Helsinki Olympics in 1952.
Horace Ashenfelter of the United States, right, beat out the Soviet Union to win gold in the 3,000-meter steeplechase at the Helsinki Olympics in 1952. Courtesy of Penn State

Horace Ashenfelter, a three-time All-American runner at Penn State and Olympic gold medalist, died on Saturday in West Orange, N.J., at the age of 94.

Ashenfelter left at lasting legacy at Penn State, where he captured the NCAA title in the 2-mile run in 1949 to go with All-America honors in the 2-mile in 1947 and the 5,000 meters in 1948. Penn State honored the standout track athlete in 2001 when it named its indoor track: the Horace Ashenfelter III Indoor Track.

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

Ashenfelter graduated from Penn State in 1949 and went on to win the gold medal in the 3,000-meter steeplechase in the 1952 Olympics held in Helsinki, Finland. He set a world record with his time of 8 minutes, 45.4 seconds, stunning the favorite, Vladimir Kazantsev of the Soviet Union. Ashenfelter, who was an FBI agent, trailed Kazantsev “for most of the race,” according to the New York Times. But he finished strong to pull the upset.

He received a telegram from FBI director J. Edgar Hoover after the win, according to the New York Times.

“All your associates in the F.B.I. are proud of your brilliant victory and happy with you over establishment of a new record,” the telegram said.

It was the crowning achievement of his running career, and he was honored with the 1952 Sullivan Award, given to the country’s top amateur athlete. He also competed in the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, Australia. In his career, he won 17 national championships, according to USA Track & Field.

In 1975, he was inducted into the National Track & Field Hall of Fame.

Ashenfelter was born on Jan. 23, 1923, in Phoenixville, Pa. He graduated from Collegeville High School in 1941 and served in the Army Air Corps in World War II before heading to Penn State.

His grandson, William Ashenfelter, is currently on the Penn State track and field team.

“We all carry heavy hearts with the passing of Horace Ashenfelter,” Gondak added. “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.”

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