He was the overwhelming favorite in his event, so much so that U.S. sportswriters covering the 1960 Summer Olympics boasted that if Americans won just one gold medal over the rival Soviet Union at that year's Games, it would be his.
A skinny 19-year-old from Boston, John Thomas had been the first high jumper to leap 7 feet indoors, setting the mark when he was only 17. When the Summer Games began, he was the world record-holder in the event, by then having cleared 7 feet more than 30 times. He had not been defeated in two years.
But when he lost, perhaps inevitably given his age and the pressure of the Olympics, Thomas was remarkably level-headed, telling reporters he was disappointed but proud to have won the bronze medal.
Not so the sports media, which castigated the teenager for choking.
"I was called a quitter; a man with no heart," he later said. "It left me sick."
Four years later, Thomas and Valery Brumel, one of two Soviets who had defeated him in Rome, shared an Olympic record at the 1964 Tokyo Games, each jumping 7 feet, 1 3/4 inches. But Brumel, who had fewer missed attempts, again edged Thomas, taking home the gold to his rival's silver.
Coming at the height of the Cold War, the rivalry between the two men was intensified by the ideological struggle between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. But competing again and again against each other, they forged an improbable friendship.
Thomas, who became a community college coach and athletic director after he stopped competing, died Jan. 15 while undergoing heart surgery at a hospital in Brockton, Mass., where he lived, his family said. He was 71.
The tone for Thomas' long friendship with Brumel was set early on. When Brumel was badly injured in a motorcycle accident in October 1965, a year after the Tokyo Olympics, Thomas sent him a telegram. "Sometimes a twist of fate seems to have been put there to test a man's strength of character," he wrote. "Don't admit defeat. I sincerely hope you come back to jump again."
Brumel recovered to compete again, but he never regained his form. The two men stayed in touch throughout their lives and Thomas visited Brumel several times in Moscow. Brumel died in 2003, mourned by his old friend.
John Curtis Thomas was born March 3, 1941, in Boston and grew up in Cambridge. His father worked as a bus driver; his mother was a kitchen employee at Harvard University. He was a star athlete in high school and at Boston University, from which he graduated with a bachelor's degree in physical and psychological rehabilitation in 1963.
In 1959, while a college freshman, he became the first person to jump 7 feet indoors, sailing over the bar and electrifying a crowd watching the Millrose Games at New York's Madison Square Garden. Thomas would win the high jump at the Millrose competition five more times, and officials later named the event in his honor.
Soon after his victory at Millrose, Thomas caught and injured his pivotal left foot in an elevator accident that threatened to end his track and field career. It took him months to recover, but he rebounded, going on to compete in the 1960 Olympics in Rome. He came in third behind Robert Shavlakadze, who took the gold, and Brumel, who won silver.
"Losing didn't bother me," Thomas told The New York Times in 1982. "But what did bother me was a lot of people who were around me suddenly disappeared."
In 1964, he won a silver medal in the Olympics, never mentioning that he had suffered a hernia while training with the U.S. track and field team in California before the Games. He said later that he didn't want to be sent home or, if he didn't win, to appear to be making excuses.
He retired from competition at 27, becoming a businessman and later a college coach and athletic director at Roxbury Community College in Massachusetts.
Throughout his career, he won four national collegiate titles and seven national AAU championships. He broke the world outdoor record three times, cleared 7 feet 191 times and lost in just eight competitions. He was inducted into the National Track and Field Hall of Fame in 1985.
Thomas spoke of his Olympic experience without bitterness.
"It was a good part of my life, and I treat it as part of my life," he told the Boston Herald in 1994. "I don't let it encompass my life. I don't live in the past."
Needle-exchange program pioneer dies at age 73
A Tacoma man who started one of the nation's first needle exchanges to prevent HIV-AIDS among drug users died there Monday at age 73.
The needle exchange David Purchase started in 1988 in downtown Tacoma was quickly copied across the country, leading his friends and associates to call him a public health hero. All he wanted to do was prevent the spread of HIV-AIDS among drug users.
"When he began talking about the needle exchange, his sense of social justice, Dave didn't have a neutral gear or a reverse gear," said Lyle Quasim, a friend since 1970. "Dave only had forward gears."
The Tacoma program, which was controversial at first, is now run by the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department.
Purchase went on to found the North American Syringe Exchange and the Point Defiance AIDS Project and was instrumental in programs that began as far away as Australia and Italy.
"He was the instigator, and everyone else was a supporting actor," said Terry Reid, who worked with Purchase at substance-abuse programs.
Dennis Flannigan, a friend since high school and a former state lawmaker and Pierce County councilor, remembers Purchase being asked to testify before Congress on needle-exchange programs.
"He was a lovable, determined man, but he told them, 'You're letting people die' by not supporting the effort," Flannigan said. "He challenged authority in such an articulate, measured way, you could not defeat his logic."
Purchase also was a photographer for The Boeing Co. and shot test flights.
South Vietnamese general who led brief coup dies
Khanh Nguyen, a South Vietnamese general who briefly gained control of the government in a coup and went on to lead a "government in exile" in California, has died.
Nguyen died Jan. 11 at a San Jose hospital, said Chanh Nguyen Huu, who succeeded Nguyen as head of the Garden Grove, Calif.-based Government of Free Vietnam in Exile. He was 86.
In November 1960, Nguyen helped thwart a coup against the U.S.-backed President Ngo Dinh Diem when he mistook the rebels for Viet Cong soldiers and rushed to the president's defense.
"Because I thought it was a Viet Cong attack, I sent orders to the troops to help us," he said in a 1981 interview. "At that time, I saw it was a coup managed by some of the paratroopers - not all of them, but some."
South Vietnamese generals overthrew Diem's regime three years later, starting a period of volatile unrest.
Nguyen himself briefly took control of the government in a Jan. 30, 1964, coup but left Vietnam the following year after being forced out of power by other generals amid growing tension with U.S. military officials. He lived and worked in France for several years before settling in California with his wife and four children in 1977.
Nguyen was a leader in the Government of Free Vietnam in Exile, which was founded in 1995 and operates out of a storefront in Garden Grove, in the heart of the largest U.S. Vietnamese expatriate community, Huu said. In 2002, Nguyen organized an international convention in Anaheim, in suburban Orange County south of Los Angeles, and held elections for the party he founded.
He was elected head-of-state in 2005 for the exiled government and transferred his power to Huu in 2007 as his health began failing, Huu said.