July 9, 2010 will come and go like any another day to many of us. Today however is the 80th birthday of “our” Olympian Sim Iness. While there will unfortunately be no celebrations or events to mark this day, let us still pay homage to a gentleman in the truest sense of the word, who brought so much not only to California’s Central Valley, but to the lives of those he touched and encountered throughout his own.
Sim is not “ours” in a possessive form, for no one truly possesses another. Rather, Sim is “ours” because so many aspects of his life story are relevant to ours in so many ways. The Iness family was humble sharecroppers in Oklahoma who had only their crops and each other. After being blown out of their land and their crops completely wiped out, they only had each other. Desperately wanting a better life for their family, the Iness’ endured over a month-long odyssey westward in search of a brand new life in the ‘land flowing with milk and honey’, California. A better life is what they wanted, but along the way they endured the stings and arrows of man’s prejudice, as they were constantly derided as “Okies” along the way and looked at as second class citizens.
Once in California and the Central Valley, the Iness’ continued what they knew best, farming the land, and they tilled the soil of countless land after countless valley land as migrant farm workers. Sim’s parents, Garland and Hattie Iness, would work the land till the end of their days.
For anyone, including Sim, it’s tough to make friends when you go to eight different elementary schools in seven years. Not to mention for a young teenager, it’s even tougher not being able to play sports initially; instead helping with the family income by feeding and milking the cows at 4:00 every morning and afternoon.
High school is a rough transition for many teenagers, filled with all the insecurities of their young age. This was very true for Sim. Entering high school, he began growing into a giant (eventually topping out at 6’6”, 240lbs in his prime). He was clumsy and felt very awkward due to his size as he was still growing into his body. Already shy and insecure because of this, kids teased him, which brought his quiet nature and shyness to the forefront even more. He had yet to harness his body’s strength and power which would one day win him an Olympic gold medal and countless athletic titles. He did not know his own strength, nor what he was capable of, both physically and in life. Due to his family’s lack of finances, he was never destined to go to college.
While in high school he found a sense of purpose through sport, and with a coach that truly believed in him, Sim began to grow as a man, both personally and athletically. It is somewhat anti-climactic when an entire town is behind two of their hometown boys to make the first Olympic team of the post-WWII era and only one makes it, but that is in fact what happened. However this only strengthened Sim’s resolve. And when the conquering hero returned from London, Sim was one of the first persons that he saw congratulating him as he stepped off the plane, while Sim helped hoist the champion onto his shoulders.
With the support of an entire town behind him in the form of a college scholarship, college would now become a reality for Sim. Subsequently, he would be the first in his family ever to attend college. Along the way he had to sacrifice his education and temporarily drop out of college in order to work a daunting full time schedule of two jobs in order to support his wife and recently born daughter.
Sim’s vast athletic achievements are now that of legend. But while even stepping into the Olympic discus ring in Helsinki, Finland in 1952, Sim was the underdog. Although he was the most confident of discus throwers that day and knew what he could do within his ability, he still had to overcome a solid field of competitors which included both the current Olympic champion and current World Record holder.
Appearing in two films to earn extra income for his family while in college, rather than continuing with a movie career and a role already signed for him in the now classic Humphrey Bogart film ‘The Harder They Fall’, Sim instead chose to devote his life to teaching and coaching. Rather than choosing a big name or athletically acclaimed university to teach at, his humble nature instead took him to a high school and later a community college. While he taught and coached, instead of drawing upon his own athletic achievements, Sim would instead regale with pride to his students, stories of the athletic and Olympic feats of his best friend and former classmate and teammate Bob Mathias. Many of Sim’s students were not even aware that their own teacher was an Olympic gold medalist and World Record holder until long after they were instructed by the man himself.
While Sim’s name and achievements are unfortunately not as instantly recognizable as they once were during his athletic prime, echoes of his legacy can still be found throughout. From a high school gymnasium named for him, to his place of induction in several halls of fame, to his own internet web-site, the enduring legacy and story of Sim Iness is still prevalent in this day and age, if not more so than ever before. For his is a story filled with the ups and downs and sacrifices that we can all relate to. For those that knew Sim, his was the biggest success story of all, and it provides a beacon of understanding and hope to any person who with their given lot in life at this present time can identify with the struggles of life and of an uncertain future.
One never heard a bad word uttered about Sim Iness. But rather countless sentiments of admiration, respect, and genuine love for the man and how he lived his life continue to echo to this day as big as the man himself.
Sim Iness was a literal giant among men, but a gentle giant at that. He has taught countless millions through the years, and he will continue to do so, as long as people are willing to listen. Happy Birthday Gentle Giant.