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Bob Richards, olympic pole vault champion, dies at age 97

Bob Richards, a three-time olympian and the first athlete to ever be featured on a Wheaties cereal box, has died, his son said on social media. He was 97.

"We lost a national treasure today," Brandon Richards wrote Sunday on Facebook. "He passed in his sleep peacefully surrounded by loved ones. He is in a better place now and at peace." 

U.S.A. Track and Field also put out a statement remembering the legendary "Vaulting Vicar," a nickname Richards earned after he became an ordained minister while still competing. According to U.S.A Track and Field, Richards had been the oldest living track and field gold medalist at the time of his death.

Richards grew up as a "skinny poor kid from Illinois with stuttering speech," his son wrote. He eventually overcame his speech impediment and would travel across the country to give sermons while competing at the University of Illinois, his son said.

In college, Richards tied for the national collegiate pole vault title, and he continued adding to his victories with 20 Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) wins. In 1951, he was named the country's top amateur athlete by the AAU.

In total, Richards competed in three Olympic Games — 1948, 1952 and 1956. He took home bronze in pole vaulting in his first year, but secured the gold medal in each of his next two appearances. He also competed as a decathlete in 1956, in which he placed 13th.  

Richards also earned two gold medals for pole vault in the 1951 and 1955 Pan American Games.

Olympic Pole Vaulter Bob Richards
Pole vaulter Rev. Bob Richards of La Verne, California, hurdles earthward after clearing the bar during the pole vault event in 1952 in Helsinki, Finland. Bettmann / Getty Images

Richards was elected to the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame in 1983 after being inducted into the National Track & Field Hall of Fame in 1975, according to U.S.A. Track and Field.

After his athletic career, the "Pole Vaulting Pastor" went on to become a sportscaster and motivational speaker, Brandon Richards said.

"He then proceeded to give over 25,000 speeches worldwide to companies and organizations, motivating millions of people to achieve their dreams through positive sports stories," Richards' son wrote. "He always motivated us kids the same way to be the best we could be."

Richards' two sons followed in his footsteps and also became pole vaulters. According to U.S.A. Track and Field, Brandon Richards even held the national high school record at one point.

"He was the greatest dad I could ever ask for and I will miss him dearly," Brandon Richards said. "There will only ever be one Bob Richards. He was one of a kind."

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