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John Russell (1920–2020), oldest living Olympic medalist

by Linnea Crowther

Colonel John Russell was a U.S. Army veteran of World War II and the oldest living Olympic medalist, an equestrian who took bronze in the team jumping event at the 1952 Olympics.

Soldier, athlete, and coach

Russell served in the mounted 104th Cavalry of the National Guard during World War II, fighting in Africa, Italy, and Germany. He was honored with a Purple Heart, a Bronze Star, and the Soldier’s Medal. It was as a soldier in the U.S. Army that he competed in his first Olympics – the 1948 Summer Olympics in London was the last to feature Army members on the U.S. Olympic Equestrian Team. Russell didn’t medal then, but when he returned to the 1952 Summer Olympics in Helsinki, he and his horse, Democrat, were part of the bronze-winning jumping team. Russell went on to run the United States Modern Pentathlon Training Center in San Antonio. There, he coached and mentored generations of athletes. He was a member of the United States Show Jumping Hall of Fame and was awarded the Gold Medal of Honor by the Union Internationale de Pentathlon Moderne.

Notable quote

“I’ve just been damned lucky all my life. I really have no regrets. Of course, if I hadn’t done the riding, I might have been promoted more within the Army, and it might have been nice to retire with a couple of stars. But then I wouldn’t have had all these incredible experiences with horses. So I don’t think I’d change a thing.” —from a 2011 interview with The Chronicle of the Horse

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Tributes to John Russell

Full obituary: Team USA

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