My Most Unforgettable Olympian
By Neil Earle
With the World Cup and Wimbledon on in one month we can’t say we’re not getting our sports diet for the summer.
Yet watching people parry and gearing up for my own gym/softball sessions brings to mind a sports figure I was privileged to get to meet just before his passing from our lives.
Coach Harry Sneider (1941-2014) of Arcadia, California trained runners and track and field competitors for the 1984 US Olympic Team while he himself bore a lifelong handicap. “No handicap could stand in the way of his remarkable life,” one of his friends declared at Harry’s memorial service at the former Ambassador College student center in Pasadena, CA on July 12.
Harry’s early life seemed to forestall any chance he had of becoming an Olympic coach and trainer. With his family fleeing the Red army from his native Latvia in 1944 he soon developed osteomyelitis in Germany and almost died at the age of 6. “The doctors didn't understand that the disease requires penicillin (so) they put my leg in a cast and the bone grew together at the hip, and the ball-socket joint was completely ruined,” Harry would tell interviewers. Arriving in Minneapolis in 1947 as displaced persons his family never allowed him to consider himself handicapped. Blessed with magnificent upper body strength he soon excelled at weight-training.
He came to Ambassador College in Pasadena, California in 1967 and soon helped set up a fitness program that would attract visitors such as his colleague Arnold Schwarzenegger. Then came the prep for the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles where Harry was named a track and field coach for the US team. He trained nine athletes in 20 events. These included, Dwight Stones – two time Olympic bronze winner in the high jump; James Butts, Olympic silver medalist in the triple jump and Mark Gordski, Olympic gold medalist in cycling.
In the meantime Harry helped inspire and train the amazing Bob Wieland’s Walk across America on his hands. Bob’s legs had been blown off in Vietnam but this astonishing feat eventually earned him and Harry a private audience with President Ronald Reagan in 1986.
In 1992 Harry was part of the Great American Workout at the White House. Then his career moved into personal and family training from his converted living room in Arcadia. He and his wife Sara devoted themselves to the Senior Olympics, hosting the annual games Power-lifting Championship for 21 years. The peak came when Harry bench-pressed 450 pounds at age 61.
This is all quite remarkable and even overwhelming but it misses the inspired interactions Harry formed across his life – motivating people, prodding them, training them, moving them forward with his mantra “You are a winner.”
He had a lot of Bible verses in his training regime as well, for Harry was devoted to God and always tried to understand him better. Lee Brandon, a two-time Long Drive Champion, won Harry over as his assistant in 1984 by showing up with a shot put and a Bible. “I became his helper during the 1984 Olympics,” she told me.
Ambassador College was his venue and for most of Harry’s time there it was the headquarters of the Worldwide Church of God – now Grace Communion International (GCI). He met church founder Herbert Armstrong there who instructed Harry to help mentor world chess champion Bobby Fischer when he showed up in 1973. This event really put Harry on the map. “Some days I’d get phone calls from Henry Kissinger and then Pravda trying to find out where Bobby was,” he told me. When Armstrong and Fisher were later both publically attacked in print Harry courageously penned a defense of both of them for the Pasadena Star-News. Loyalty to the max, that was Harry.
The July 12 Celebration
The testimonies that came flowing in on July 12 gave ample evidence of Harry Sneider’s status as a champion trainer and as a Christian. Former head of Ambassador’s theology department, Dr. George Geis, remembers Harry in three phases, borrowed from the Book of Ecclesiastes. “He was a mighty man, a family man and everyone’s man.” It was almost impossible to be dejected and depressed in his presence. Dr. Robert Kuhn, a fellow Freshman with Harry in 1967 and now a prominent international businessman, summarized that “Harry gave new meaning to the archaic term handicapped.”
“He was a man not challenged by his infirmities,” added Dr. Kuhn, “but a man who challenged them.” He added: “It’s almost as if Harry’s life was designed to be a special sign of motivation and desire.”
His buddy Bob Wieland remembers Harry prodding him to contemplate walking across America by starting him off on Ambassador’s innovative artificial turf walking on his arms. “On December 8, 1982 Coach Sneider was there when I set out from this very track and egged me on till I finished on May 14, 1986,” said Bob, “three years, eight months, and six days of walking on my arms across the USA.”
“He was with me at the beginning and at the end in Washington, DC as we had planned.”
In an interview I did with Harry for DCTV in November 2012 he told me how President Reagan bawled like a baby when he saw what Bob had done under Harry’s tutelage. Jeanette Parker followed Bob’s testimony with stories of his work with her – the average person trying to strengthen their health. Harry’s sincere love of helping people and seeing them improve stood out for her. “He was a man who lived up to his name,” she said. Many middle-aged people derived life-altering health benefits from the Sneider family gym.
Olympian Dwight Stones was the last to speak, relating the old 1980s anecdote about how he and Harry really believed the adage that “where there’s manure there’s gotta be a pony there somewhere.” There’s no question that the bond between Harry and the people he trained was unbreakable.
For my part, I interacted with Harry as one of his prayer partners when he called me to his house in the summer of 2012 and his health problems were mounting. I prayed with him twice in the hospital and interviewed him for my cable TV show A Second Look in Duarte, California (available on this web site under “Videos”).
Perhaps it is fitting that I end with this prayer I gave on July 12 in honor of my most memorable Olympian.
“Lord God our heavenly Father. Truly you are the Giver of every perfect gift. Surely you have had a hand in gifting us with the life of Harry Sneider.
“Thank you for him.
“Thank you for the thousands and thousands of lives he has touched in this world, from the White House to friends in Saudi Arabia and from Pasadena to Sri Lanka and beyond.
“Thank you for his family who are left to carry on and be with them and sustain them in their loss. And we know you will.
“Father, we know you are the Author and Finisher of our faith and we thank you that Harry Sneider finished his race strongly.
“We thank you for knowing him, and we will never forget him and we are thankful most of all that we will see him again.
“In Jesus’ name, Amen.”