By Josh Barr
Birthday parties started to become large gatherings for Col. John Russell when he turned 80.
“He had a beer belly and was a Texan’s Texan, even though he grew up on a dairy farm,” said Rob Stull, a three-time Olympian in modern pentathlon, the sport that Russell coached and later served as chief executive of USA Pentathlon. “He was really part of the fabric of the sport. All roads led to Russell. He just had this charisma. We figured if we didn’t get it in then, we might never get it in.”
Russell, though, had other plans. They gathered again for his 85th birthday and again when Russell turned 90.
Ten years after that, in February 2020, Russell was the oldest living Olympic medalist – having won the bronze in team jumping at Helsinki 1952 — when he celebrated his 100th birthday with dozens of friends and family members.
Russell passed away on Sept. 30, 2020, but stories from throughout his legendary career will be passed on forever.
He was born in 1920 and grew up on a dairy farm near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. It was there that Russell learned to ride horses — a skill that came in handy when at age 18 he joined the 104th Cavalry National Guard Regiment in Pennsylvania. Two years later, Russell was sent to the cavalry unit at Fort Riley, Kansas, and when World War II began, he went to Army Officers Candidate School.
From there, it was off to tours in North Africa and Germany. Russell was wounded and sent to Italy to recover, then attended intelligence support school and took over command of the 88th Reconnaissance Company stationed in northern Italy.
“We were out there by ourselves with all these horses,” said Russell, who received the Purple Heart, Bronze Star and Soldier’s Medal for his actions while serving. “And we were given permission to train them and take them to horse shows. So we showed all over Austria and Italy.
“We weren’t spending all our time riding, of course. We also ran patrols from the castle.”
That time on the horses helped Russell qualify for the U.S. Olympic Equestrian Team at the London 1948 Olympic Games.
“As we walked into the stadium, I noticed that a lot of the other athletes were carrying newspapers,” Russell said. “I had no idea why, until they released thousands of white pigeons toward the end—and we all got splattered. So at the 1952 Olympics, I made sure to carry a newspaper for protection.”
Russell remained in the military following the London Games and balanced being in the army and participating in show jumping. Upon his return to the Olympics at Helsinki 1952 – the first time Team USA sent a civilian equestrian team instead of an all-military team – he helped the U.S. win its first-ever medal in the sport.
“He was the best rider in America,” Stull said. “Equestrian is a combination of you and your horse. It’s a pair. There was one time that he was coaching and I had a horse that was hard to handle. He got on the horse and didn’t even use his hands and got the horse to do what he wanted with his legs and his feet. He was a natural rider.”
An injury to his horse prevented Russell from competing at Stockholm 1956. It was then that he turned his attention to the modern pentathlon, which consists of fencing, swimming, show jumping and a final combined event of pistol shooting and cross-country running. He was assigned to be the Officer in Charge of the U.S. Modern Pentathlon Training Center at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio and coached the U.S. Olympic pentathlon team at six Games. He later operated the Russell Equestrian Center in San Antonio, molding generations of riders.
“He was an extraordinary person and crossed between both sports,” Stull said. “He had a great life.”