Milt Campbell not only once claimed the title of being the world’s greatest athlete, but this Olympian’s story as an All-American swimmer may be one of the world’s most unknown and inspirational success stories in all of sport.
In 1953, as an eighteen year old, Milt was named by Sport Magazine as the best high school athlete in the world and it’s hard to imagine any high schooler on the planet who has ever had a superior claim to that title. As a junior, not only had Campbell won the silver medal in the decathlon at the 1952 Olympic Games, but he had also finished fifth in the open high hurdles at the U.S. Trials. He scored 180 points for his high school football team in one season and subbing once for a sick heavyweight wrestler, he took only a minute and a half to pin the boy who would go on to become state champion. On top of that, he was an All-America swimmer. After high school, Campbell went on to star in both football and track at Indiana University and capped his amateur career by winning the gold medal in the decathlon at the 1956 Olympic Games in Melbourne, Australia.
Don’t tell Milt Campbell he can’t do something, because he’s been proving them wrong his entire life. Take for example his freshman year of high school when he wandered into the pool at Plainfield High in New Jersey. The team had never had a “colored boy” try out, he was told by a team member, “because your people come from Africa and never learned because of the crocodiles, never learned to swim.” He took that as a challenge and joined the team. The swim coach, Vic Lisk, encouraged Milt, but Milt’s father said he shouldn’t trust white men. Well, not only did Milt trust Lisk but he became an All-American swimmer in his years at Plainfield and established a bond with his coach that lasted a lifetime.
In 1956, all the media predicted that Rafer Johnson would win the decathlon in Melbourne instead of Milt Campbell, but when the two met at the Olympic Games it was Milt who was crowned as the world’s greatest athlete.
His simple but important secret for success in athletics and life, he says, is that “It’s not what you say to me that matters. It’s what I say to me.”
Although he was the greatest athlete of his generation, Milton Campbell is a forgotten hero who deserves to be recognized not only as a former competitive swimmer who achieved greatness out of the pool, but because it is important for the children of the world and the sport of swimming that his experience and inspirational story receives the attention it deserves.
Milt Campbell is retired now and writing his memoirs.