Asmussen: Mulliken carried torch for C-U

Asmussen: Mulliken carried torch for C-U

Bill Mulliken wasn’t supposed to win the Olympic gold medal in 1960. Not even close.

But the Champaign Central grad shocked the world at the Rome Games, winning the 200 breaststroke in record time.

Those were the same Olympics made famous by a young boxer named Cassius Clay. And track star Wilma Rudolph.

Mulliken passed away Thursday at 74 after suffering a stroke. The Miami (Ohio) graduate was living in Chicago.

His gold medal was a big deal at the time. Champaign’s Joan Sensenbrenner lived down the block from Mulliken on Willis Street.

“I remember being one of the first people from Champaign to see the gold medal,” Sensenbrenner said. “I was 10. It was quite an accomplishment.”

Mulliken set up Champaign-Urbana for more Olympic success. Like five-time gold medal-winning speedskater Bonnie Blair.

Unlike Blair, who had plenty of pressure going into her Olympic appearances, little was expected of Mulliken before the Rome Games.

Sure, he won a gold medal at the 1959 Pan-American Games. But the 1960 field was loaded with stars, and Mulliken wasn’t ranked among the Top 10 contenders.

In an interview 10 years ago with the Chicago Sun-Times, Mulliken said his dad told him it would be good if he could “beat one of the Russians.”

Mulliken did much more than that.

Maybe it shouldn’t have been a surprise based on his work at Miami. He became the first swimmer in school history to win an NCAA title. Later, the school honored Mulliken with a spot in the school’s Hall of Fame, the first swimmer to reach that lofty status.

Mulliken’s talents weren’t limited to the pool. He went from Miami to Harvard Law School.

When a new Champaign Central is built, we assume there will be a swimming pool. And here’s an easy way to honor Mulliken’s memory: put his name on the place.

Bill Mulliken Pool will keep his legacy growing. Every young swimmer who walks into the building will come up with the obvious question: Who is Bill Mulliken?

Near the entrance, they can place a story about Mulliken, telling the tale of the underdog swimmer with the Champaign roots. It will be a nice piece to go along with Mulliken’s Olympic gold medal and state championship banners that can be relocated from their current home in Combes Gym.

Bob Asmussen writes three columns a week for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at 217-351-5233 or by email at


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