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Tom Waddell

Sport: Track & Field

Born: November 1, 1937

Died: July 11, 1987

Town: Paterson

Thomas Flubacher was born November 1, 1937 in Paterson. He did not have a happy home life and moved in with Gene and Hazel Waddell after his parents separated in the early 1950s. The Waddells officially adopted Tom, although he was over 18 by the time they did. They were former vaudeville acrobats and encouraged Tom to pursue gymnastics at Springfield College in Massachusetts, where he had been accepted on a track scholarship.

Tom played football and was a member of the track team, but stopped competing in gymnastics after his best friend, the team’s co-captain, suffered a fatal injury. While at Springfield, Tom switched his major to pre-med and was accepted the New Jersey College of Medicine. During the 1960s, Tom was active in a number of protest movements. In 1966, he was drafted as a preventive medicine officer and trained as a paratrooper. He refused to go to Vietnam, and expected to be court martialed. Instead, the Army assigned him to train as a decathlete for the 1968 Olympics.

Tom competed in Mexico City and finished third in the high jump, javelin and 1,500 meters. He did poorly in the short sprint and hurdles, finishing sixth overall. He set new personal records in half of the 10 events. A knee injury in 1972 ended his competitive career.

Tom decided to come out as gay at this point. He used his notoriety as an athlete and his medical degree to open a men’s health clinic in San Francisco’s Castro District. He started the Gay Olympics in 1982 (the USOC made him change the name to Gay Games). In 1985, Tom was diagnosed with AIDS. He competed in the 1986 Gay Games and won gold in the javelin, but he was dying at this point. He passed away the following year. Sportswriter Dick Schaap said Tom “may have been the most impressive human being I ever met. Certainly, he was the most impressive athlete.”

Tom’s last words were, “Well…this should be interesting.”


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