When he was 12 years old, Bill Toomey was playing with a piece of ceramic pottery when it shattered and severed the nerves in his right wrist. Doctors told him that he would never again be able to use the hand – a prognosis that he later to confound by putting the shot, throwing the discus and the javelin and carry the pole for the vault, all to fantastic effect.
He dreamed of being an Olympic champion and paid his own way to go to Tokyo to watch the 1964 Games. There he realised that, while a fine sportsman, he couldn't do any one event supremely well enough to meet this standard. So he decided to do ten instead of one, and took up the decathlon.
He progress quickly and prospered in international meets. But then, just as his career was taking off, he caught hepatitis while in West Germany. Toomey nearly died and spent six months in hospital, but he did recover – and he did return to action.
Then, with horrendous timing, his recovery was ended when he contracted mononucleosis, which was followed by a car accident in which he sustained a shattered kneecap.
A lesser man would have given up, not least because Toomey was also having to hold down a job as a school English teacher. Yet, like so many decathletes, his resolve was iron and he went to Mexico as America's leading challenger.That challenge became march towards victory for the first day. The biggest problem came in the pole vault when he failed with his first two attempts. Nervous and stressed, he later said his success with his third effort was down to “sheer determination. He went on to clear 4.20m, setting a personal best.
Victory came with clear victory in the 1500m, bringing a gold medal and an Olympic Record. “If it were easy,” said an exhausted Toomey, “it would have no value”.