At the tail end of the news stories about a Yemeni immigrant who tried to break into the cockpit of a San Francisco bound American Airlines flight, comes the name Bill Nieder. The seventy-seven year old Nieder was one of three passengers, who along with flight attendants subdued the potential attacker. This was not the first time Nieder has made the news.
In high school at Lawrence High in Kansas, he was a prep All-American in football and a star on the track & field team. He became the first person to throw the high school twelve pound shot put over 60 feet, putting it 60’9.75” in 1952. In football he played on both offense (center) and defense (middle linebacker) and was recruited to play at the University of Kansas. But in his first game in 1953, he suffered a football career-ending knee injury, that almost required amputation.
The injury prompted him to put all his energies into track & field. He became the first collegiate athlete to throw the sixteen pound shot put over 60 feet. He was the 1955 NCAA Champion in the shot put, and as a college senior won the silver medal at the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne. He also competed in the discus, where his Kansas teammate was Al Oerter, who would go on to win four Olympic gold medals.
1960 would be a memorable year for Nieder. Three times that year he set the World Record, including 20.06 meters (65’10”) on August 12, 1960. However, Nieder had an off-day at the United States Olympic Trials and placed fourth, making him only an alternate for the US Olympic team to Rome. Nieder kept competing and was consistently beating the three shot putters who had qualified for the Olympic team. When teammate Dave Davis suffered a minor injury, Coach Payton Jordan did not hesitate to put Nieder on the team as Davis’ replacement. With one throw left in the Olympic Final, Nieder was in second place trailing Parry O’Brien’s 62’8.5” mark. On his last throw Nieder threw the shot 64’6.75” to win the gold at the 1960 Rome Olympics, leading a 1-2-3 American sweep with fellow future Hall of Famers O’Brien and Dallas Long.
That threesome of Nieder, O’Brien, and Long dominated the shot put for twelve years. Between May 1953 and May 1965, the shot put world record was bettered twenty times, each time by either O’Brien (ten times), Long (seven times), or Nieder (three times). During that period these three would improve the world record over eight feet, from 59’0.5” to 67’10”.
Soon after Rome, Nieder retired from track & field and took up boxing. In his one and only bout he was knocked out by Jim Wiley. Sports Illustrated described Nieder in his venture into boxing as a “little lost puppet.”
After retiring from athletics, Nieder did not slow down. He worked for 3M and was instrumental in the development of artificial turf used on fields in place of grass. In 1968 he sold the first the first synthetic track surface to be used in the Olympics to the Mexico City Olympic organizers. In 1973 he founded Marathon Engineering Corporation, which specialized in high-quality safety padding for the correctional and psychiatric markets (the “rubber” room in a mental ward).
Nieder has been married to his wife Sharon for over thirty years. The couple was on their way home to Angel’s Camp after a four month cruise around the world on the “Love Boat,” the ship that the 1970’s television series was based on. They were sitting in first class when a man ran down the aisle screaming “Allahu akbar,” Arabic for “God is great,” and then began pounding on the cockpit door. That’s when Nieder sprang into action, helping to subdue the potential attacker.