UNC’s Olympic Firsts

Athletes and coaches from UNC have participated in most summer Olympic games since 1936. The list below is an effort to compile a handful of notable Olympic firsts from Tar Heel athletes. I used the list of UNC Olympians available on GoHeels.com and a similar list on Wikipedia. It’s possible that some of these may be incomplete — if we learn of any mistakes or omissions (and we’d like to hear from you if you can help!), we’ll post the updates as soon as possible.


First Olympian: UNC’s first Olympian was Harry Williamson, who ran the 800 meters at the 1936 summer Olympics in Berlin. A native of High Point, Williamson was a track star at Carolina, winning conference championships in the mile and half-mile. After winning both of his qualifying heats in Berlin, Williamson finished sixth in the 800 meter finals. See if you can pick him out on this YouTube video of the race.


First Medalist: The first medalist from UNC was the remarkable Floyd “Chunk” Simmons, from Charlotte, who played football and ran track at Carolina. A terrific all-around athlete, Simmons won the bronze medal in the decathlon in the 1948 and 1952 Olympics. He competed throughout his life, winning age group awards when he was in his 70s and 80s. As if that wasn’t enough, Simmons had an acting career, appearing in multiple movies including the hit 1958 musical South Pacific. Simmons looked back on his career in a 2007 interview with the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Public Library, available on DigitalNC.org.


First Gold Medal: It should be no surprise that the first UNC alumnus to win a gold medal was a basketball player. In the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, Larry Brown became the first Tar Heel to play on an Olympic basketball team and helped the U.S. men’s team win the gold, defeating the Soviet Union in the final. Carolina women first won gold in the 1996 Olympics with the women’s soccer team, which featured several players from UNC, including star Mia Hamm.


First Women: Several athletes competed in the Olympics before coming to UNC, including swimmers Ann Marshall (1972 Olympics), Janis Hape (1976 Olympics), and Wendy Weinberg (1976 Olympics).

As far as I was able to tell, the first woman from UNC to compete in the Olympics while still a student was Sharon Couch, a track star who finished sixth in the long jump in the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona.


First Individual Gold Medal: Former Tar Heel athletes excelled in team sports in the Olympics, participating in gold medal-winning teams in men’s basketball and women’s soccer. A former UNC star did not win an individual gold medal until the Atlanta Olympics in 1996, when Allen Johnson won the gold in the 110 meter hurdles. The first woman from UNC to win individual gold medals was Marion Jones, who won three golds in the 2000 Sydney Olympics. However, Jones later returned the medals after admitting to steroid use.


 

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  1. Pingback: Eben Alexander and the Revival of the Modern Olympic Games | History on the Hill

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