Born in Connellsville, Fayette County, Pennsylvania, U.S., "Long" John Woodruff was only a freshman at the University of Pittsburgh in 1936 when he placed second at the National AAU meet and first at the Olympic Trials (in the heat 1:49,9; WR 1:49,8), earning a spot on the U.S. Olympic team. Woodruff was a member of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity.
Despite his inexperience, he was the favorite in the Olympic 800 metre run, and he did not disappoint. In one of the most exciting races in Olympic history, Woodruff became boxed in by other runners and was forced to stop running. He then came from behind to win in 1:52.9. The New York Times described the race:
He remembers the anguish of his Olympic race: “Phil Edwards, the Canadian doctor, set the pace, and it was very slow. On the first lap, I was on the inside, and I was trapped. I knew that the rules of running said if I tried to break out of a trap and fouled someone, I would be disqualified. At that point, I didn’t think I could win, but I had to do something.”
Woodruff was a 21-year-old college freshman, an unsophisticated and, at 6 feet 3 inches (1.91 m), an ungainly runner. But he was a fast thinker, and he made a quick decision.
“I didn’t panic,” he said. “I just figured if I had only one opportunity to win, this was it. I’ve heard people say that I slowed down or almost stopped. I didn’t almost stop. I stopped, and everyone else ran around me.”
Then, with his stride of almost 10 feet (3.0 m), Woodruff ran around everyone else. He took the lead, lost it on the backstretch, but regained it on the final turn and won the gold medal.
During a career that was curtailed by World War II, Woodruff won one AAU (Amateur Athletic Union) title in 800 m in 1937 and won both 440 yd (400 m) and 880 yd (800 m) IC4A titles from 1937 to 1939. Woodruff also held a share of the world 4 x 880-yard (800 m) relay record while competing with the national team.
Woodruff graduated from the University of Pittsburgh in 1939, with a major in sociology, and then earned a Masters Degree in the same field from New York University in 1941. He entered military service in 1941 as a Second Lieutenant and was discharged as a Captain in 1945. He reentered military service during the Korean War, and left in 1957 as a Lieutenant Colonel. He was the Battalion commander of the 369th Artillery later the 569 Transportation Battalion New York Army National Guard.
In later years Woodruff lived in New Rochelle in Westchester County, New York and in Hightstown, New Jersey. He coached young athletes and officiated at local and Madison Garden track meets. Woodruff also worked as a teacher in New York City, a special investigator for the New York Department of Welfare, a recreation center director for the New York City Police Athletic League, a parole officer for the state of New York, a salesperson for Schieffelin and Co. and an assistant to the Center Director for Edison Job Corps Center in New Jersey. In the late 90's John, with his wife Rose, retired to Fountain Hills, Arizona residing at Fountain View Village retirement community. Woodruff's last public appearance was on April 15, 2007 when he, along with the members of the Tuskegee Airmen, was honored by the Arizona Diamondbacks by throwing out the first pitch. John Woodruff is buried at Crown Hill Cemetery, Indianapolis (section 46, lot 86).
Each year, a 5-kilometer road race is held in Connellsville to honor Woodruff.
- Litsky, Frank. "A Victory That’s Still Memorable 70 Years Later", The New York Times, August 1, 2006. Accessed November 10, 2012. "He spoke from Fountain Hills, Ariz., near Phoenix, where he and Rose have lived in a two-bedroom apartment in a senior housing complex for five years since moving from Hightstown, N.J."
- John Woodruff, an Olympian, Dies at 92, NY Times 2007
- John Woodruff, Connellsville's Olympic Champion by Jim Kriek
- The John Woodruff Story by Julie Bertsch
- Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article on Woodruff's 70th anniversary of race
- Article on Woodruff, 70 years after his Olympic race
- John Woodruff feature on The Olympic Show
- Woodruff's 1936 Gold Medal Race
- John Woodruff's oral history video excerpts at The National Visionary Leadership Project