Horace Ashenfelter was a Penn State graduate, Olympic gold medalist, and world record holder in the 3,000-meter steeplechase.
The Collegeville, Pennsylvania, native was a four-time All-American as a member of the Penn State track team and the two-mile NCAA national champion in 1949. Ashenfelter, then a field agent for the FBI, was the surprise winner of the steeplechase at the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, Finland.
At the time, he had competed only eight times in the grueling steeplechase, an obstacle course with 35 waist-high hurdles and seven water pits. Record-holder Vladimir Kazantsev of the Soviet Union was heavily favored to win, but Ashenfelter made a dramatic surge on the final lap, after the last water hazard, to earn the gold medal. It was one of the great upsets in Olympic history and an early Cold War athletic victory for the United States.
Ashenfelter won the 1952 Sullivan Award as the outstanding amateur athlete in the United States. He won seventeen national running championships, including the USA Cross Country Championships in back-to-back years (1954-1955).
Ashenfelter graduated from Penn State in 1949 with a bachelor’s degree in physical education. He enrolled in 1941 but his studies were interrupted by World War II service in the Army Air Forces as a pilot and aerial gunnery instructor. He served as an FBI agent from 1951-1959. After leaving the FBI, he held sales jobs in the metal refining industry. He died on January 6, 2018, at the age of 94.
Ashenfelter is a member of the National Track & Field Hall of Fame and the National Distance Running Hall of Fame. The indoor track at Penn State’s Multi-Sport Facility was named in his honor in 2001, and his Olympic gold medal is on display at the Penn State All-Sports Museum.
“Horace Ashenfelter, Olympic Victor of a Cold War Showdown, Dies at 94.” The New York Times, January 7, 2018.
First Published: June 11, 2021
Last Modified: January 21, 2023