When the sun broke through the clouds over Montecito, Jim Sobieszczyk said, “I can feel his presence.” He was talking about Dave Thoreson, the namesake of the Thoreson 30-Minute Decathlon, which had eight athletes rushing through 10 events (100 meters, long jump, shot put, high jump, 400 meters, 110 hurdles, discus throw, pole vault, javelin throw, 1500 meters) at the Westmont College track last Saturday morning.
They had 30 minutes to go from the first event to the last, as ordained by Thoreson when he invented the competition in 1971. The former Westmont All-American was a legendary innovator throughout his career in athletics and as a PE teacher at La Colina Junior High. He died last October in Lynchburg, Virginia.
“His death really affected me,” said Sobieszczyk, who traveled from Bend, Oregon, to join five generations of multi-eventers who spent their young adult lives in Santa Barbara, grinding away at one of the most difficult and least remunerative sporting endeavors.
Unable to make the trip was Bill Toomey, the only Santa Barbara–based decathlete to make the Olympic podium. He was the gold medal winner at the 1968 Mexico City Games. He lives in North Lake Tahoe and celebrated his 80th birthday last Thursday.
Toomey, Thoreson, and several others shared an Isla Vista apartment while they trained at UCSB, where the late Sam Adams, a decathlete himself, was track-and-field coach.
“Dave kept us laughing,” Toomey said. He recalled one of Thoreson’s pranks when they competed at the Bislett Games in Oslo: “Dave told everybody he was Bill Toomey. They interviewed him, and the papers said that Bill Toomey was here looking for a Norwegian bride.”
Other stories were told Saturday:
- Thoreson’s best event was the high jump — he cleared 6’11” — and he would probably have gotten involved in today’s extreme sports. He would run up walls to reach second-story patios. Once he made such a leap to grab a steak off a grill, took a bite, and returned it, saying, “It needs three more minutes.”
- To run faster, he tied himself to the back bumper of a car driven by Paul Herman, another Westmont athlete who placed fourth in the 1964 Olympics decathlon. Thoreson’s strides lengthened as he got up to full speed, but the car slowed when Herman shifted gears, and Thoreson slammed into the trunk.
- His daughter, Tami Thoreson Orozco, came down from Fresno, where she is a teacher and coach. When she attended La Colina, she said her father drove through the hallways and let her off at her classroom door. He set up an obstacle course that helped Tami and many others develop as athletes.
Saturday’s revival of the 30-minute decathlon brought several hundred spectators to Westmont. Curtis Beach, a former NCAA champion from Duke, posted a winning score of 6,242 points. He had a close miss at 4.40 meters (14’5¼”) in the pole vault that would have brought him 209 points closer to the U.S. record of 6,526 set by John Warkentin at UCSB in 1977.
Especially challenging was the transition from the 400 meters to the hurdles. In a usual two-day decathlon, those events are separated by a night’s sleep. “My hamstrings are burning,” said Travis Smelley, a recent Westmont grad, after running the hurdles.
Then it was off to the discus throw.
COURT OF CHAMPS AND HALL OF FORESTER FAME: Saturday, January 26, will be a banner day for devotees of Westmont College basketball and Santa Barbara Foresters baseball. Before Westmont’s 3 p.m. men’s game against visiting Arizona Christian, there will be a short ceremony welcoming the late Tom Byron into the Santa Barbara Court of Champions. The Foresters will fete two of their former players (major leaguer Jeff McNeil and Aaron Gordnier), as well as front-office whiz Pat Burns, during their annual Hall of Fame celebration beginning at 5 p.m. at the Carriage Museum.
Byron was a beloved Westmont coach and athletic director whose life was cut short by cancer. He died on February 3, 1972, and the very next day, the emotionally charged Warriors scored a historic 90-89 victory over Hawai‘i, the nation’s 14th-ranked NCAA Division 1 team. Byron’s widow, Dorothy Byron, will be on hand to receive the accolade of the Court of Champions, which has honored more than 60 prominent individuals in regional basketball since 2014.
The latest additions also include former players Ron Anderson (SBCC 1980-82), Mort Hill (UCSB 1939-43), and Doug Rex (UCSB 1968-72); and Shirley Zion Otto, major supporter of the Santa Barbara Islanders, a record-breaking Continental Basketball Association team in 1989-90.
McNeil, a member of the Foresters’ 2011 National Baseball Congress championship team, earned a starting spot in the New York Mets infield while hitting .329 last season. Gordnier was a standout for the club in 1996-97, and Burns helped head coach Bill Pintard lay the groundwork for what has become the winningest team in NBC World Series history.
Tickets for the Hall of Fame gathering, including food and drink, cost $50 for adults and $15 for ages 7-13 (6 and younger free). See sbforesters.org.