When Princeton Coach Fred Samara was a sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania, a second-place finish in the decathlon at the NCAA Championships cemented an invitation to the first-ever U.S. decathlete training camp in Colorado. It was 1971 and among the other 10 or so athletes in attendance was the former Bruce Jenner. A life-long friendship began.
This week that friendship has been the subject of more interest than ever before because the Olympic champion appeared on the cover of Vanity Fair in her debut as a transgender woman, headlined “Call Me Caitlyn.” The media has been trying to uncover every aspect of the story since, which has led them to Samara.
“Initially I had to search my own feelings about it,” Samara said Thursday night. “While it was a shock, I came to the realization that [she] had struggled with this for a long, long time … Society has changed so dramatically, even in the last two, three or four years. But while society is more accepting, it still takes a lot of courage to do this at the age of 65. If someone is truly honest and at peace, it’s a good thing.”
It isn’t just a good thing for Caitlyn. It is a great thing for awareness and acceptance of LGBT athletes and non-athletes alike. The LGBT Sports Coalition released a statement which welcomed Jenner to the community. “We are overjoyed to witness her strength and courage to be her authentic self in a world that does not always accept and celebrate members of the transgender community,” it read. “Caitlyn Jenner’s example will motivate athletes to be themselves and to accept themselves.”
Not without controversy, ESPN has announced it will honor Jenner with the Arthur Ashe Courage Award — the pinnacle of the celebration at the ESPYS — on July 15. “As such a high-profile public figure, this will have an enormous impact on the next generation,” said Anna Aagenes, an All-Ivy 800-meter runner for Penn just a few years ago. She now serves as a Vice President for Program Management & Community Relations at You Can Play, an organization dedicated to ensuring equality, respect and safety for all athletes, without regard to sexual orientation.
Policy regarding transgender athletes is also evolving so quickly, Chris Mosier — an educator and nationally known transgender Ironman triathlete and coach — established a website to keep track of it all and provide a resource for the community as well as those needing both clarity and advice.
As Samara looks back, he never imagined the strain that existed inside his friend. By 1973 the two were not only training together in San Jose, Calif., they were living in the same apartment building. As they prepared for the 1976 Olympics, Samara thinks that the all-consuming nature of training to be the world’s greatest athlete occupied both their time and their mind.
Jenner had the top score in the world in both 1974 and 1975 while Samara and fellow American Fred Dixon were both in the top 10. Those three would represent the United States at the Games, where Jenner broke the world record in a gold-medal effort. Overnight that golden face graced the cover of Sports Illustrated, the Wheaties box and NBC’s track & field coverage.
While Samara — who was 15th in the Montreal decathlon — would soon become a coach at Princeton, he and Jenner kept in touch. The relationship ramped up in 1990 when VISA was persuaded to fund Team USA’s decathlon program. Samara‚ as the program’s national chair, enlisted Jenner and all the U.S. gold medalists to participate in supporting the next generation of decathletes, headlined by Dan O’Brien and Dave Johnson.
With VISA sponsoring three training camps a year for the nation’s top 10 athletes, Samara and Jenner spent significant time developing new stars before the program lost its title sponsorship in 1998.
Three years ago, the International Association of Athletics Federation hosted a week-long celebration of the 100th anniversary of the decathlon as part of the Thorpe Cup in Marburg, Germany. Again, the old friends who met in Colorado more than 40 years earlier again spent time together, reliving past glory, watching the next generation of decathletes and catching up on each other’s lives.
Samara — who visited Caitlyn on her birthday last year with Olympic teammate Fred Dixon — knows that they will reconnect soon. “It will be different,” he concedes. “This is a huge change. But you have to be true to yourself first. [She] was my friend back then and still is now.”