Roy Cochran: a Mississippi Olympic story

I’ve covered nearly 30 Super Bowls, more Masters than I can count, a couple U.S. Opens, a World Series and several national championship games.

But I covered the Olympics only once — in Atlanta, in 1996. It was an experience not to be forgotten, including the bomb that went off in Centennial Park one night just before our deadline.

There was no shortage of Mississippi stories to write. Ruthie Bolton, from the tiny Greene County town of McLain, was the heart and soul of a gold medal-winning U.S. women’s basketball team. Angel Martino, who then lived in Hattiesburg, was gold-medal winning captain of the U.S. Women’s Swim team. Ron Polk helped coach the bronze medal-winning U.S. baseball team.

And then there was the day I met Janice Cochran-Pendleton, a woman from Kansas whose roots went back to tiny Richton, Mississippi, near McLain.

Turns out Janice Cochran-Pendleton was the daughter of Leroy Braxton “Roy”Cochran, of Richton, who had won two gold medals in the 1948 Olympic Games at London. Boy, did Janice have a story to tell…. 
“He lived on a farm way out in the country,” Pendleton told me. “There were 10 kids in the family, and there wasn’t much money and not much to do. So they ran. They ran everywhere. They ran to school. They raced each other. They ran for the fun of it.

“If they wanted to go somewhere, they went on foot. If they had to get there fast, they ran.”

Roy Cochran reached places really fast. He took after his older brother, Commodore Cochran, who had run first at Mississippi State, then at Indiana, and then to a gold medal in the 1924 Paris Olympics. Commodore Cochran, who left State to follow his coach to Indiana, talked younger brother Roy into running for the Indiana Hoosiers, as well.

His was an amazing story of perseverance. He was 29 years old when he won his two medals, which was considered past the prime of sprinters and hurdlers of that day. Cochran had qualified for the 1940 Olympics, but those Olympics were canceled because of the war in Europe. He became a U.S. Navy officer and served in the Pacific during World War II, believing his athletic career finished. At war’s end he entered the University of Southern California in pursuit of graduate degrees in physiology.

At USC, he began to run for recreation and fitness and was surprised to find that his times were as fast as ever after the long layoff. So he returned to serious training, which led to London and the golds in the 400-meter hurdles and the 1600-meter relay.

Cochran, who died in 1981 at the age of 62, never cashed in on his Olympic gold as so many of today’s athletes do. There were no endorsements and certainly no cash prizes. All he got were the two gold medals. Pendleton says her father never boasted or bragged about his Olympic golds.

“That just wasn’t his way,” Pendleton says. “He used to tell me, these things won’t get you anything but a cup of coffee, and that’s if you’ve got a dime to go with them.”

The gold medals certainly hadn’t made Cochran famous in his native state, even though he was a distant relative of U.S. Senator Thad Cochran. That changed after Pendleton the story of her father and her uncle and after my column ran on the front page of The Clarion-Ledger during the 1996 Olympics.

Later that year, Roy Cochran was nominated for induction into the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. He was inducted in 1997.

His two gold medals, donated by his daughter, are still prominently on display.

2 thoughts on “Roy Cochran: a Mississippi Olympic story”

  1. I am Commodore’s eldest son. As the oldest of ten children from a farm in Richton Mississippi my father’s tale is a little different. He waited till he was six before attending the one room school house down the road so that he could take his younger sister Edna. Then he graduated at 16 to attend Mississippi State in Starkville, an ROTC College.

    At twenty he graduated a 2nd Lieutenant in the National Guard and the AAU National Champion in the quarter mile. Over the next couple of years “Speed” Cochran ran in various “All Comers” meets, Olympic warm-ups.

    It was one of these track events at University of California that he met my Mother who was an athletic aficionado having bested Helen Wills in Tennis as a teenager.

    In the 1924 Olympic trials he failed to make the 400 meter team due to severe muscle cramping from the three day train ride. However Olympic Coach “Dink” Templeton knew that “Speed” Cochran had the best 400 meter time in the world and took my dad to Paris as an alternate.

    He was put up first as he had the best start and led the whole way; the team tied the Olympic record of 3.16 minutes.

    He was very modest of his Olympic achievements, I never heard him say much about it but throughout his life people would buy him a drink if given the chance. I think his fame introduced him to many people both rich and poor. Once you have been an Olympic champion life is pretty humdrum. He worked for PG&E for many years, but he was down at the recruiting office the day after Pearl Harbor and served in the MPs until Japan surrendered. He worked for the Veteran’s administration assisting fellow soldiers adjust to civilian life.

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