Olympic Dreams: Dick Emberger '60
From the Roanoke College Magazine, Issue Three, 2012. View the entire Roanoke Magazine online.
What defines a champion? A split-second tap on the swimming pool wall? A victorious lean into the tape? Or is it overcoming odds to pursue a lifelong quest? Or how well one rises after the fall? Dick Emberger '60, Shelley Olds '03, and Peter Tainer '16 are three Maroons who embody "champion." Their stories are as different as day and night, sun and moon. But woven throughout is a common thread: an Olympic dream.
Run through the tape.
Roanoke College Coach C. Homer Bast delivered that mantra to his track athletes with regularity.
Dick Emberger '60 could hear it when he beat his opponent by less than a second in the U.S. Olympic Trials in Los Angeles in 1964. The two were almost neck and neck nearing the finish line of the 1,500-meter race. Emberger broke the tape first.
"If you've got anything left, you do it now," Emberger says he remembers thinking as he recalled his former coach's words. "You run as hard as you can to get to the finish line."
Emberger went on to finish 10th in the decathlon in the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, making history as the first Roanoke College athlete to compete in the Olympic Games.
Emberger's track talent was shaped at the College, where the storied Bast foreshadowed the New Jersey native's potential. Emberger did not come to Roanoke a star track athlete, but by his senior year, his track success was legendary, according to "The Bast Boys," a book that details Bast's coaching career and his athletes.
Emberger's success was a result of Bast's instruction.
"He had time for everybody, it wasn't just the star athletes," Emberger said. "He worked with guys who were average."
The decathlon was not an event during Emberger's Roanoke track days, but Bast said he believed that Emberger one day could do well in the event, perhaps at a higher level.
"Just by looking at him, you could see that he had it all," said Bast, who now is 98 and lives in Salem.
Emberger - who is featured in "The Bast Boys," written by Larry Arrington '63, former Roanoke track athlete and head coach of Cross Country and Track, and Dean of Men - competed and often scored points in at least five events per track meet for the College. Bast put the College's track athletes in as many events as possible.
"Being a small school, they needed you to do a lot of events," Emberger said. "After you did your workout, [Bast] would say, 'Why don't you come over here and try hurdles?' Most guys would do anything for him."
The track team raced on a cinder track and pole vaulted using a Swedish steel pole that didn't bend, Emberger said. Jumping pits consisted of hay bales and sawdust.
Emberger set Virginia state records in the high jump and high hurdles for both indoor and outdoor track. He also shined as a swimmer at Roanoke, holding the College's diving record. He got plenty of diving practice, because he lived in an old storage room in the basement of the College's Alumni Gym, which was near the pool.
That living arrangement was free for Emberger as part of a scholarship that required him to maintain the gymnasium and assist visiting teams when they competed at Roanoke. The room was large enough for two beds, two desks and a roommate.
"I locked the door at 6 p.m." each day, Emberger said, explaining that along with time to study, he needed extra rest to keep up his rigorous athletic schedule. He studied psychology and education and earned 11 varsity letters at Roanoke.
With encouragement from Bast, Emberger joined the U.S. Marine Corps after graduating from Roanoke. A captain, he fought in the Vietnam War.
But his track career didn't stop there.
Emberger competed in his first decathlon at the Mt. SAC Relays at Mt. San Antonio College in California. His decathlon skills improved as he competed in various invitational track meets while he was stationed at Camp Pendleton in California. The 1,500-meter race was his best event.
Competing in the Olympics was his dream, and Emberger wrote Bast a letter to share the news that he had made Team USA.
"I thought it was the grandest thing in the world," Bast said of Emberger's Olympic debut.
Emberger scored 7,292 points and won the 1,500 meters in 4 minutes, 19.3 seconds at the Tokyo Olympics. But he said it was not his best decathlon performance. It was rainy and cloudy on both race days.
Even so, the Olympics was "the opportunity to pit yourself against the best athletes in the world," he said. "Sometimes you do well. Sometimes you don't."
Emberger tried for a second shot at the Olympics in 1968, but didn't advance beyond the decathlon trials. In 1971, he was inducted into Roanoke's Hall of Fame.
Nowadays, 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 for a few years. Now, he swims for exercise and works at a local golf course.
He is retired, but works occasionally as a substitute teacher, because "I enjoy the kids," he said.
Emberger is married to Rosemary Lotuso Emberger '63, whom he met at Roanoke, and the couple, who live in Escondido, Calif., have two children and five grandchildren.
Emberger has visited Roanoke's campus four or five times since he graduated. When he's here, he heads to what is now the C. Homer Bast Track to watch the College's track athletes compete.
And though he lives across the country, Emberger still keeps in touch with Bast, who was a professor, coach and administrator at Roanoke for 33 years. Bast received an honorary degree from Roanoke in 1979.
"He was always there pushing you," Emberger said, describing how Bast motivated the team to run hard up and down the hilly Hawthorn Road. "If you can't walk, crawl," Bast would tell the runners.
"It was that attitude, 'never give up,'" Emberger said.
- Jenny Kincaid Boone '01