“Running A Victory Lap”: A West Point Olympian Reflects On Competition And Service

Tom Lough


At the start of the interview, Tom Lough, USMA 64, begins by describing his efforts to promote West Point’s Olympic legacy and heritage. He highlights the historically strong influence West Pointers have had on the Olympics, and he (and others) believe that the Academy should do more to promote the legacy of past Olympians as a way to inspire current Cadets. He shares the story of honoring the memory of West Point Olympians through a room at the Thayer Hotel that was supported by Guy Troy, USMA 46, and Craig Gilbert, USMA 78, who, along with his wife, did a lot of the legwork to make the memorial room happen. Tom also wrote an article for West Point Magazine covering the history of the Modern Pentathlon. Tom Lough was born in July 1942 and grew up on the banks of the Shenandoah River, splitting his time between town and country living. As a boy, he was involved with the Boy Scouts, eventually rising to the rank of Eagle Scout. By high school, he knew he wanted to be a scientist or an engineer, and he attended Montevideo High School because they had a better college prep program. He remembers running an introductory track meet and winning two ribbons, which taught him the joy of winning after hard competition. At Montevideo, he was faced with the question of what he was going to do when he grew up, and a biography of Eisenhower brought West Point to his mind. He began writing to his members of congress to secure a nomination, and he became an “alternate” for a slot to the Academy. When a qualified alternate position opened up, he jumped at the opportunity. Fortunately he had earned a $350 dollar scholarship, and that money paid for all of his pre-Cadet requirements and the travel expense to get to West Point. On R-Day, he remembers the “Man In the Red Sash,” tags on his trousers, and the oath ceremony. He was impressed by the intensity of the Academy, but was thankful that his parents had instilled in him a drive to succeed and a strong sense of faith. He had great roommates, and two who had graduated from USMAPS (United States Military Academy Prep School) helped square his room away. He wanted to get on Corps Squad tables for relaxed eating as a Plebe, and after trying a few teams, he finally found a home on the Triathlon Team. As a boy, he had played piano, and to give expression to his musical interests, he sang with the Glee Club and the Cadet Chapel Choir, with the added benefit of singing trips away from West Point. He describes hearing MacArthur’s “Duty, Honor, Country” speech as a member of the Glee Club sitting very close to the podium. In later years, he began composing musical numbers honoring West Point like “Day In The Life March,” which was a tribute to American Soldiers, “Ever Faithful To The Call,” a hymn for Soldiers, and “Black, Gold, and Gray,” which was based on MacArthur’s “Duty, Honor, Country” speech. He participated on the fencing team (which had been restarted for the modern pentathlon team) but really found his niche on the triathlon team, where he never scored highest in any particular event, but his combined scores were the best. He knew Ron Zinn, USMA 62, an Olympic speed-walker on the 1960 and 1964 Olympic teams though his USMA 64 classmate, Akos Szekely. During the summer of 1962, he took personal leave to travel to Ft. Sam Houston for evaluation as a potential Olympic athlete, and learned to ride a horse. He remembers hearing about Kennedy’s assassination while he was walking back from a class at Trophy Point. Unfortunately, he had injured his foot and could not march in the funeral procession. Upon graduation, he branched Engineers, with Infantry being a close second. One thing he appreciated about being a combat engineer was providing support to infantry units. After graduation, he was detailed to Ft. Sam Houston for additional observation before joining the 13th Engineer Battalion in Korea. In addition to performing traditional combat engineer missions, his unit also improved roads, helping the Koreans recover from the war. While in Korea, he learned the importance of conducting reconnaissance. After returning from Korea, he began preparing for the 1968 Olympics in earnest, training in Colorado Springs. Even though Colorado Springs is a high-altitude training location, Dr. Randy Wilberg had the team train for a period on Pike’s Peak (which Tom considered miserable). He describes earning a spot on the pentathlon team and the competition he faced. Just before the Olympic trials, he was injured and spent time in the hospital with his leg in traction. Concerned about losing his edge, he developed ways to train in his hospital bed that maintained his level of fitness, and when he recovered, he found that he was still in top physical condition. He describes receiving his uniforms and taking a charter plane to Mexico City for the games. Spirits were high, and one athlete brought her record player on the plane, sparking an impromptu party in the air. He recalls preparing to march in the opening ceremony and the thrill of hearing the cheers as the United States team marched into the stadium. 1968 was the first year a woman carried the torch to ignite the Olympic flame. He reflects on the competition, where 9 points out of over 13,000 separated France in 3rd place and the USA in 4th place. (In 1967, Team USA had beaten the French team in the “Little Olympics” that was held in Mexico City in preparation for the ’68 games.) He enjoyed interacting with athletes from all over the world. The late 60s were a time of great change in the United States, and Tom shares insights into the discussions among the athletes concerning social and racial equality, which culminated with John Carlos and Tommie Smith raising their fists on the podium. Tom then describes returning to Mexico City in 2007, visiting Olympic venues, and realizing that he missed his team. That led to his efforts to reunite the 1968 Olympic team and the ongoing outreach to bring the team back together, something unique in the history of the Olympics. He has managed to contact over 90% of the surviving members of the team, and for the 50th anniversary a third of the team reunited. The H.J. Lutcher Stark Center for Physical Culture and Sports at the University of Texas at Austin recorded audio oral histories with over 120 athletes of the 1968 team. Tom describes how one of his teammates, Mel Pender, who like him served in Vietnam, was pulled from combat for the Olympics, and later coached the West Point track team. After the Olympics Tom was sent to Vietnam, but the night before he departed he asked his girlfriend Posey to marry him. They had known each other since he was a Cadet. Arriving in Vietnam, he was assigned to B Company, 326th Engineer Battalion in the 101st Airborne Division. He found Vietnam hot and muggy, but being an amateur photographer, he looked for the beauty of the country. One of his missions was constructing forward firebases for artillery, and his engineers built Firebase Berchtesgaden among others in the A Shau Valley. In May 1969, when the Battle of Hamburger Hill began on Dong Ap Bia, the Rakkasans needed an LZ for medevac helicopters. Tom’s engineers were called on to create a landing zone in the jungle. He had to decide “do I send them, or do I lead them?” He led his engineers to the battlefield, and as they were approaching the proposed LZ site, his Huey was shot down and he was ejected from the aircraft. He was evacuated, but the LZ was carved out of the jungle, helping to save American lives. Later, Tom earned a Soldier’s Medal for pulling Soldiers out of a burning helicopter that had flipped on an LZ. While in Vietnam, he had the opportunity to take R&R twice to Hawaii, and he and Posey used that time to plan their wedding, which was on November 30, 1969, two weeks after he returned from Vietnam. In 1970, he completed the Engineer Advanced Course before earning a master’s degree from the Ohio State University in Geodetic Science in 1972. He was then assigned to the 656th Engineer Battalion (Topographic) in the Heidelberg area. His unit was responsible for maintaining the maps of Germany and supplying them to units on REFORGER exercises (Return of Forces to Germany), wargaming possible Soviet / East German invasions. He then took command of the 535th Engineer Company from 1973 to 1974, which was responsible for civil engineering projects as a heavy and light horizontal construction company. In 1974, he left the Army as a Major and pursued a career in education, starting at the high school level, earning a master’s degree in physics (1983), a PhD in educational psychology (1990), an MBA in 1995, and eventually teaching science education at Murray State University, where he retired as a Full Professor in 2014. During the late 80s until the late 90s, he worked as the curriculum coordinator and as a project manager for LEGO Dacta in Connecticut. He tried to help educators overcome an emotional barrier to teaching science so they could make it fun for the children. From 2009 to 2011, he served as a Science Education Consultant for the Schlumberger Corporation. In 2004, Tom was recognized by the National Science Teacher’s Association (NSTA) with their Distinguished Teaching Award. In 2003, the U.S. Olympians and Paralympians Association presented Tom with the Louis Zamperini Lifetime Achievement Award for his efforts documenting and reuniting the 1968 team and promoting the values of the Olympics. Reflecting on his service, Tom calls it “a high and noble calling,” and describes his life as a race with each lap being 20 years. He feels that now he is on the victory lap, celebrating the achievements of his first 80 years. Now, he is an aspiring screenwriter with the goal of telling the story of the first woman who wanted to be a pentathlete. He is working with a group called VME Veterans in Media and Entertainment and is developing a community of West Point writers and actors. With regards to the Olympics, Tom has taken a team and created a family. He describes the principle of leverage, where value is added and builds a community. Finally, considering West Point, he states that the Academy has given him inspiration, skills, resources, and spiritual development. It taught him to take risks and be open to opportunities.


conflicts Cold War Vietnam War
topics Army Athletics Leadership Teamwork Camaraderie West Point History Returning from War U.S. Olympic Team
interviewer David Siry
date 18 June 2024


name Tom Lough
institution USMA
graduation year 1964
service Engineer
unit 13th Engineer Battalion; B Co 326th Engineers, 101st Airborne Division; 656th Engineer Battalion (Topographic); 535th Engineer Company
specialty 1968 Olympics Modern Pentathlon Team
service dates 1964 1974