Bill Toomey was 12 years old when an accident severed a nerve in his right hand. He would need five surgeries over the next few years just to regain about 75 percent functionality.
But as he began to emerge as one of the United States’ top track and field athletes, Toomey never mentioned the injury to his peers and competitors, even though it affected his ability to grip various objects.
“I never told anyone I had a paralyzed right hand,” Toomey said. “To tell someone would have provided me an excuse to fail.”
Toomey won five consecutive AAU pentathlon championships from 1960 to 1964 and narrowly missed qualifying for the Tokyo 1964 Olympic Games in the decathlon. Instead of traveling as part of the American delegation, Toomey traveled on his own and carefully watched the decathlon, resolving to improve and be a metal contender at the Mexico City 1968 Olympic Games.
A strong believer in the power of positive thinking, in 1965 Toomey won the first of five consecutive AAU decathlon championships – even though he threw the shotput, discus and javelin right-handed.
As Toomey kept his eye on the Mexico City 1968 Olympics, he encountered a series of obstacles. He tore a calf muscle in a pole vaulting accident, requiring 35 stitches. Having traveled to West Germany to train, he contracted mononucleosis and hepatitis, spending several months in a hospital. He shattered a kneecap in a motorcycle accident.
Every time, though, Toomey bounced back. The Mexico City 1968 Olympics decathlon wasn’t always smooth. Toomey failed in his first two pole vault attempts and was faced with the prospect of being knocked from contention before finally getting on track. He rallied to win the final event, the 1,500-meter run, to claim the gold medal with an Olympic-record 8,193 points.
“Ten is my favorite number,” he said. “Ten letters in my name. Born on January 10. Always wore number 10 as a ballplayer. It had to be the decathlon.”
Toomey continued competing for one more year, setting world records in the pentathlon and decathlon, before beginning a marketing career that the AAU determined made him a professional.