Al Buehler started running at 6 years old and he never stopped. He ran against kids his own age and when there was no one left to beat he began to compete with the older kids. He
loved running all his life and used it to help change his world and ultimately our world.
He came to Duke University in 1955 as track coach. In 1955 North Carolina was still segregated and the first African American student would not attend Duke for almost a decade.
Coach Buehler had an outstanding cross country team, with promising middle and long distance athletes. All male, all white. His counterpart over at North Carolina Central University, Leroy Walker, had outstanding sprinters dodging puddles at their broken down track. They were all black. Leroy and Al struck up a friendship at a time when these things just weren’t done, and pretty soon Al had invited Leroy to bring his sprinters and come on over to train at the superb Wallace Wade Stadium track at Duke. Al Buehler travelled around the segregated south with Leroy Walker, attending meets with their joint team. Al wouldn’t go to meets that wouldn’t accept Leroy and his sprinters and relay teams. They couldn’t eat together at many restaurants or stay in the same hotels but some people stopped going to those places and slowly they began to make an impact on the attitudes of people around them.
Coach Buehler went on to coach many many elite athletes and Olympians, and become an Olympic track and field coach himself. He was a champion of Title IX and gave up his own
men’s scholarships so that women could compete. He organized a track meet with the Russians during the Cold War, and in Durham NC filled the stands. He organized a ‘united African’
team, brought them to Duke and filled the stands again. Coach Buehler drove Tommie Smith and John Carlos to the airport in Mexico City, rescuing them after their podium gesture
garnered death threats and caused the USOC to remove them from the Village and the Games.
His training methods taught his athletes not only sport but gave them important life lessons too. All athletes know that the lessons learned in training, about competition, about why you do it, about self discipline, about the journey, about digging deep, all that carries over into life and Coach taught them well. Things like “Positive emotions including enthusiasm, always lead to positive outcomes” and “Let your beliefs guide you” were tenets Coach passed along to those whose lives he touched.
Amy Unell has made a powerful documentary about Coach Buehler, which we had the privilege of viewing in London at USA House in the presence of Coach Buehler and meeting him, for Dick the second time since 1968 and Mexico City. There were many older athletes at the presentation and during the Q&A afterwards, who well remembered that time and shared stories about the journey African American and women athletes have taken to stand tall where they are today. Young people need to know that things weren’t always like how they are, and we still are on the journey; great strides have been taken but we are not done. Society needs to follow role models like Coach Buelher and we will get to the right place if we do.
Al Buehler received a well deserved lifetime achievement award at the USA Track and Field trials in Eugene Oregon a month before the London Games. He’s 81 now and it was an honor to shake his hand at USA house, and to hear how a single man has touched so many people and made the world better by letting his beliefs guide him. The book “Starting at the Finish LIne’ is based on the documentary and is available through Duke University and on Amazon.
The documentary and book website is www.coachbuehler.com.