Decades before Keeping Up with the Kardashians, Caitlyn Jenner was one of the world's greatest athletes

By Lindsay Kimble
Updated June 28, 2016 01:05 PM
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Credit: Allsport UK /Allsport/Getty

Caitlyn Jenner has become a fixture on reality television – first, as a member of one of America’s most famous families, and, later, as a transwoman, openly sharing her journey with millions.

Decades before that, though, Jenner was one of the world’s greatest athletes who took home gold in the grueling decathlon at the 1976 Montreal Olympics.

The record-breaking victory came at the end of intense training – and great sacrifices for Jenner, who then went by the name Bruce.

After coming in 10th place at the 1972 games in Munich, Jenner devoted an average of eight hours a day to conditioning, according to ESPN. The odds were Jenner, who would have to face-off against Soviet defending champion Nikolai Avilov amid Cold War tensions.

In preparation, Jenner opted to train against America’s best athletes in each of the decathlon’s events, pairing up with medalists in shot put, discus and hurdles to learn proper technique. Explaining the approach, Jenner told The New York Times that, according to the United States Olympic Committee: “If you train with a decathlon man you can’t visualize that you can do much better. But if you throw the discus with Mac Wilkins or throw the shot with Al Feuerbach, then they’re 20 ft. ahead of me. You learn much more that way.”

The dedication to training had personal implications, however. Jenner and then-wife Chrystie struggled to live on a $900 a month stewardess salary. Chrystie’s employee discounts helped fly them to Jenner’s pre-Olympic meets.

Yet, the plan worked. Ahead of the Montreal games, Jenner, then 26, had set the world-record at the August 1975 USA-USSR joint track meet.

Jenner would struggle to keep the lead, however, during a final face-off with Avilov on the world stage. After falling in the first and second events, Jenner finally moved up after throwing a personal best in the shot put. Going into the eighth event, the pole vault, Jenner had moved up to second place – just nine points behind Avilov, according to USOC.

Clearing the bar cleanly after several jumps at 4.7 meters, Jenner soared into first place. Victory was solidified – and a personal world record set anew at 8,618 points – during the final, 1,500-meter run. Scoring personal bests in seven of the 10 events, Jenner nabbed gold.

Jenner, racing around the track with an American flag held high, became a household name, covering Sports Illustrated and then a Wheaties box. There were even Jenner t-shirts and dolls, according to ESPN.

Even national acclaim, however, couldn’t fix Jenner’s gender crisis. In her introductory Vanity Fair interview last year, Jenner said, “I’d walk off the stage and I d feel like a liar. And I would say, ‘F—, I can’t tell my story. There’s so much more to me than those 48 hours in the stadium, and I can’t talk about it.’ It was frustrating.”

These days, Jenner has found happiness – and she’s wearing her gold medal once again, this time on the cover of Sports Illustrated.

“It’s a picture that brings attention to this issue,” Jenner, 66, told SI of why she posed with the medal 40 years after appearing as Bruce on the cover. “That’s the important thing. That’s why I wore the medal.”

Despite the defining moment in history, Jenner says she’s found more fulfillment in her work as a transgender advocate than she ever did wearing a Team USA jersey.

“Sports. It’s not real life. You go out there, you work hard, you train your ass off, win the Games,” she explained. “I’m very proud of that part of my life. And it’s not like I just want to throw it out. It’s part of who I am. What I’m dealing with now, this is about who you are as a human being. What did I do for the world in 1976, besides maybe getting a few people to exercise a little bit? I didn’t make a difference in the world.”