World’s oldest Olympic medalist, showjumper John Russell, dies at 100


US showjumper John Russell, the world’s oldest living Olympic medalist, had only weeks to enjoy the title before he died on September 30 at the age of 100 years, seven months and 28 days.

John William Russell (1920-2020)
John Russell

Riding Democrat, Russell won the team showjumping bronze medal at the 1952 Olympic Games in Helsinki, Finland. He gained the oldest Olympic medalist title after the passing of Swedish runner Folke Alnevik, 100, at the end of August. Alnevik was a bronze medalist in the 4x400m relay at the 1948 London Olympics.

John William Russell was born February 2, 1920 to Harry and Rose Russell on a dairy farm in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. He died peacefully in San Antonio, Texas, on September 30, 2020.

Russell began his military career when he joined the 104th Cavalry which was a mounted National Guard unit with several hundred horses. During this time he was an aide to General George Patton, an Olympic pentathlete.

In 1943 he was commissioned as a 2nd Lt. in the Cavalry and fought in World War ll in Africa, Italy, and Germany. He was wounded at Cassino and was awarded a Purple Heart. His military decorations included the Soldier’s Medal, American Defense Service Medal, American Campaign Medal, European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal with two Bronze Service Stars, World War ll Victory Medal, Army of the Occupation Medal with German Clasp, National Defense Service Medal, and Honorable Service Lapel Pin WW ll.

Major John Russell, second from left, pictured with Captain Antonio Reimao of Portugal, Major Fernando Paes of Portugal and Sgt. 1st Class Norman Brinker at the Olympic Games in Helsinki, 1952.
Major John Russell, second from left, pictured with Captain Antonio Reimao of Portugal, Major Fernando Paes of Portugal and Sgt. 1st Class Norman Brinker at the Olympic Games in Helsinki, 1952. © Pentathlon USA

After the war, he served with the 18th “Blue Devil” Division in northern Italy where he helped liberate several horses, some of whom became part of the United States Olympic equestrian team. He was the first American win the Prize of Nations in 1947. In 1948 he was posted to Fort Riley in Kansas as a riding instructor. While rewriting the army’s Manual of Horsemanship, he placed second in that year’s Olympic trials, thereby becoming a member of the last American Olympic equestrian delegation to be chosen from the United States Army. He finished 21st individually at the 1948 London Olympic Games. He finished 21st in the individual competition, riding Air Mail. In 1952 became the first foreigner to win the Hamburg Spring Derby, riding a Texas-bred Quarter horse named Rattler. Later that year the US team of Russell, William Steinkraus (Hollandia) and Arthur McCashin (Miss Budweiser) won the team bronze at Helsinki. The gold medalists were from Britain, including Harry Llewellyn and Foxhunter, with Chile taking the silver.

Military duties and an injury to his horse meant Russell missed the 1956 Olympics. He retired from competitive showjumping later that year and became coach of the US Modern Pentathlon when it was located in San Antonio. He also served as the chief executive of USA Pentathlon. After the organisation moved to Denver he continued to be one of its staunchest supporters.

After he retired, he opened the Russell Equestrian Center and judged at national horse shows.

Russell was inducted into the US Show Jumping Hall of Fame and Museum, received the United States Hunter and Jumper Lifetime Achievement Award, and was also inducted into the San Antonio Sports Hall of Fame. Other awards include the Pegasus Medal of Honor from the American Horse Shows Association, the Gold Medal of Honor from the Union Internationale de Pentathlon Moderne.

Russell is survived by his wife, Shane, two sons, three grandsons and four great-grandchildren.



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