Former U.S. Olympian and Roanoke College track athlete and swimmer recalls glory days

Richard "Dick" Emberger during his Roanoke College track days.

Richard "Dick" Emberger during his Roanoke College track days.

Forty-eight years after his Olympic debut in the decathlon, Richard "Dick" Emberger '60 still remembers the inspiring words of longtime Roanoke College coach, C. Homer Bast.

"The man who wins is the man who thinks he can," Bast once said to Emberger, a standout cross country and track athlete and swimmer for Roanoke.

But Emberger is no ordinary alumni athlete. Until this year, he was the only Roanoke graduate to compete for the United States in the Olympic Games. On July 29, Shelley Olds, a 2003 Roanoke graduate and a member of the U.S. Olympic Road Cycling Team, will take her place at the starting line at the London Olympics.

Each time Emberger watches the Olympic Games, his excitement rises and his memories return.

"You get to think back on all of the agony and ecstasy," he said via phone from his home in Escondido, Calif.

In 1964, Emberger placed 10th in the decathlon at the summer Olympics in Tokyo. He joined the U.S. Olympic team after winning the decathlon at the Olympic trials in Los Angeles.

The decathlon covers two days and includes 10 single events, from the 100-meter and 1,500-meter races to the long jump, shot put, javelin throw and pole vault.

At Roanoke, Emberger not only shined as a cross country and track athlete, but as a swimmer, holding the College's diving record.  He also set Virginia state records in the high jump and high hurdles for both indoor and outdoor track. Emberger was inducted into Roanoke's Hall of Fame in 1971.

Still, Bast seemed to foreshadow Emberger's future track success. Though the decathlon was not an event during Emberger's Roanoke track days, Bast told the athlete that he could one day do well in this 10-event competition.

"We had talked about making the [Olympic] team," Emberger said. "That's something I think every athlete dreams about."

Emberger became a captain in the Marine Corps after graduation and eventually, he fought in the Vietnam War. He competed in his first decathlon at Mt. San Antonio College in California at the Mt. SAC Relays.

Emberger's decathlon skills improved as he competed in various military track meets while he was stationed at Camp Pendleton in California.

He scored 7,292 points and won the 1,500 meters in 4 minutes, 19.3 seconds during his Olympic debut in Tokyo. But he said it was not his best decathlon performance. It was rainy and cloudy on race day.

Even so, the Olympics was "the opportunity to pit yourself against the best athletes in the world," said Emberger, who raced on a clay track. "Sometimes you do well. Sometimes you don't."

He tried for a second shot at the Olympics in 1968, but he did not advance beyond the decathlon trials.

Dick Emberger and his wife, RosemaryNowadays, Emberger, who is 74, enjoys a slower sport -- golf. He taught high school English and physical education for 30 years in California, while also coaching high school track, swimming and water polo.

He is retired, but he works as a substitute teacher, because "I enjoy the kids," he said.

Emberger is married to Rosemary Lotuso (both are pictured to the left), whom he met at Roanoke, and the couple has two children and five grandchildren.

Emberger still keeps in touch with Bast, who lives in Salem and was a professor, coach and administrator at Roanoke for 33 years.

"I call him every month or so," Emberger said.

Released: July 19, 2012
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