Frank Brown was 39 years old the first time he competed in an adult athletic event. It was a competition that was put on in Des Moines by the 159 Club. It was comprised of multiple events and was somewhat similar to a decathlon. “I won every event except one,” Brown recalled.
Brown indeed won nine of the ten events, losing only in the wrestling event which was won by a former wrestler from Iowa State. This dominating performance was the start of what became a stellar career in amateur athletics that would last for decades to come.
He has a particular place in his house where most of his medals and trophies are displayed. When one sees it from a distance it appears that there are dozens of awards displayed there, but upon closer inspection, it becomes clear that the number is actually in the hundreds. There are also 26 carefully assembled scrapbooks, chronicling the details of his career.
Brown had been inspired as a youth by Bob Mathias, the two-time Olympic gold medalist in the decathlon. Mathias was an incredible all-around athlete and Brown admired him greatly. “He was just two or three years older than me, and he was an Olympic champ,” Brown said enthusiastically. Brown became a multi-letter winner in his junior high school in Los Angeles, showing great potential as an athlete. High school was different, however, as he experienced health problems, primary with his legs. As a result, his involvement in sports was limited for many years to come.
All that changed in 1973 when he began competing again, primarily in track and field events. He was particularly strong in decathlon competitions, frequently dominating them, regardless of the event. In 1989, at age 55, he dominated the Iowa Senior Olympics, winning nine gold medals and three silver medals by the end of day two of the competition.
He was injured while cross-country skiing in the late 1980s and, as a result, he began taking up race walking in a more serious way rather than simply focusing on running events. It wasn’t long before Brown realized that race walking was something that he could really excel in. In 1991, he won the National Senior Olympics in the 5K race walk, setting a new national record of 25:51 in the event and became widely known in track and field circles as a race walking phenom in senior athletics.
He competed in a number of race walk marathons and occasionally ran a marathon, too. He still competed in the decathlon as well. He enjoyed doing all the various events, even the sprints.
The decathlons were multi-day events, though, with the last day of competition always taking place on a Sunday. That was a problem for Brown. A devout Christian, he had struggled for some time about the appropriateness of competing on the “The Lord’s Day” especially if it meant he would miss church.
In 1993, he competed at the National Senior Olympics, held at the Drake Stadium in Des Moines, and took third place in the decathlon — only behind two former Olympians. It would turn out to be the last decathlon Brown would ever compete in. “I became highly convicted about competing in decathlons and missing church,” he said. “I realized I was wrong…”
In 1995, he was asked to by the Cancer Foundation to take a team to California to compete in the Catalina Island Marathon race walk. His recollection is that his twenty-one person team did pretty well in the competition, even though it was a tough race in mountainous terrain. Brown personally struggled with the terrain and found himself fighting off leg cramps a number of times, but he took the lead around the sixteen-mile mark and never looked back, winning the race with a time of five hours, twenty-one minutes.
He met his boyhood hero Bob Mathias in August 2003 at a 5K event held in Newton, Iowa. Brown attended the event but was not competing, which turned out to be a good thing. Mathias was a special guest at the event, and since Brown was not competing, he was able to spend a great deal of time with Mathias. They hit it off and really had a memorable time together. It was an unforgettable day for Brown.
His prominence in senior athletics gave him many opportunities to speak publically. Sometimes it was in formal settings and sometimes it was simply coaching athletes, but in every case, he spoke of the importance of faith: “Without Christ, all is in vain,” he would say.
He always thanked his opponents at the end of an event. After all, “there’s no race without competition,” he observed.
He was inducted into the Iowa Senior Olympics Hall of Fame in 2008, and at the induction banquet, he was asked to open the ceremonies with prayer.
When I spoke with him Brown was currently in the midst of a battle with a particularly tough opponent: cancer. At the age of 83, he was still a competitor and fought hard against the disease. Once again, his old hero Bob Mathias was an inspiration to him. Mathias wrote about his own fight with cancer in some detail, and there is much in Mathias’ reflections that Brown said he found helpful and even “beautiful.”
When he spoke of the remarkable longevity that allowed him to run countless races in an athletic career that lasted some forty years, he said, “I really don’t know how my body took it. I really don’t. But God was really good (to me).”
His last competition was in 2014, a two-mile race walk in Atlantic, Iowa. Fittingly, he won.
Frank Brown finished his earthly race on November 10th, 2017, surrounded by family and friends as he crossed the finish line. 2 Timothy 4:7-8