Our Arklahoma Heritage: From Keota to Helsinki - Olympic discus hero Sim Iness
In 1934, Garland Iness Sr. was a 25 year-old husband and father trapped in the poverty of the Oklahoma Dust Bowl, hammering out a hardscrabble existence in and around Keota in central Leflore County.
One afternoon, Garland Iness came home and announced (like may people in similar circumstances) that California was "the land of milk and honey" ad it was time that the family head west. Riding in the back of a dilapidated Model A truck stacked with bed mattresses, the Iness clan settled in the agricultural heartland of California's San Joaquin Valley and the picturesque town of Tulare, in dreams of making a better living.
One of the children in the family was a bright-eyed four-year-old by the name of Garland Simeon Innes Jr. The Iness family would go were there was migrant farm work to be had, moving several times to farms and ranches throughout the area. As a result, young "Sim" would eventually attend seven different elementary schools within eight years of his childhood.
In time, the Iness' settled at the largely successful and well known Tagus Ranch north of Tulare, where the family of seven would live in a one-room shack with a dirt floor and outdoor plumbing at the ranch camp.
A 7000-acre ranch developed by Hulett C Merritt, it was at the time the largest fruit farm in the world and a destination for migrant workers across the country with eleven camps, a general store, post office and a school. Entire families lived and grew up at Tagus Ranch.
During his sophomore year at Tulare Union High School, Sim discovered athletics as a release from the daily grind of farm work, and he began participating in football and track and field, where he concentrated on both the shot put and discus events.
Iness would prove to be the foremost powerhouse tackle in all of California's San Joaquin Valley, earning All-League honors and helping his fellow Redskins garner the 1948 Valley Championship title. In track and field, along with the help and inspiration of his high school coach Virgil Jackson, Sim poured his heart and soul into developing himself into the best discus thrower that he could be.
Continuing to hone his abilities as he dominated the high school discus event, Sim placed a respectable 7th as a high school senior in the Collegiate Open competition at the famed West Coast Relays in 1948.
Unfortunately the California State track ad field meet that year did not include the discus event, thereby keeping young Sim from capturing a state title in the discus. Days after graduating from high school, Sim, along with friend and high school teammate Bob Mathias, competed in the Pasadena Games at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, where Sim placed first among the large field of discus throwers in the Collegiate Open division.
Sim Iness and Bob Mathias
The summer of 1948 gave the small farming town of Tulare, California the remarkable distinction of having two recent high school graduates compete at the Olympic Trials, for a shot on the first Olympic team since 1936. Sim, on his 18th birthday, would place 6th, narrowly missing the chance to compete in the first Olympic gathering held in 12 years. His friend and teammate Bob Mathias would end up making the trip to London, England alone.
Due to his family's migrant farm life, Sim was never destined to go to college. But in the four years to follow, Sim was able to pursue a college education, due to the generosity of the people of Tulare who contributed to a local scholarship fund which was set up in his name.
Sim first attended Compton Community College, where on the gridiron the Tartar football squad became National Junior College champions after winning the 1948 Junior Rose Bowl. The team also included future NFL Hall of Famer "Hurricane" Hugh McElhenny. While on the track, continuing to dominate in the discus, Sim set the National Junior College discus record.
Iness then transferred to the University of Southern California, where he was a two-time NCAA discus champion. To give an idea of Sim's growing athletic prowess in the discus, at a dual track meet against San Diego State, Sim's singularly winning toss established the American, National Collegiate, NCAA meet, and USC school records. Throughout his athletic career, Sim would set most every discus record that came his way.
The year 1952 proved to be an Olympic year, and Sim was determined more than ever to go, believing that this was now his time. After setting an Olympic Trials record, Sim secured a spot on the U.S. Olympic Team, along with hometown friend Bob Mathias. And this time, the two would be travelling to the Olympics together.
At the XVth Olympiad held in Helsinki, Finland, Sim, ever the underdog, was not favored to win the event or let alone medal.
Competing against a strong field of throwers, to include the defending Olympic champion, 1948 Olympic silver medalist, and the current World Record holder, Sim smashed the existing Olympic Record on his first throw, and continued to do so throughout the remainder of the competition.
Sim not only walked away with the Olympic Record and gold medal, but his win also started a 20 year reign of U.S. Olympic dominance in the discus. A year later Sim raised the bar even further by setting the World Record, being the first person ever to eclipse the 190' barrier.
Having dropped temporarily out of college once in order to support his wife and newborn daughter, Sim graduated from USC in 1953 with a Bachelors Degree in Physical Education.
During this time to help as a source of extra income, Sim appeared in several Hollywood films.
He appeared first as a football playing extra in John Wayne's "Trouble Along the Way", followed by a minor role in "Sign of the Pagan" with Jack Palance, and another minor but key role in Maureen O'Hara's "Lady Godiva".
Plans were to appear in Humphrey Bogart's final film "The Harder They Fall", a gritty drama based on the dark side of boxing; but filming delays would end up interfering with the start of a teaching career which Sim wanted to pursue.
Rather than chasing after the bright lights of Hollywood, Sim instead chose to follow his idol, his high school coach, and began his lifelong pursuit as an educator, quietly moving back to his home roots of the San Joaquin Valley and settling in the city of Porterville.
Sim first began teaching and coaching at Porterville High School and later moved to Porterville College, where he served as a teacher, coach, and academic counselor.
As a testament to the humbleness which Sim carried throughout his entire life, upon the occasion of his retirement in 1994 after 40 years as an educator, did many of his former students find out for the first time that the man who helped raise them up in school, was in fact an Olympic gold medalist.
Throughout his educational career, Sim would rather speak to his students about his friend Olympian Bob Mathias and his athletic triumphs, rather than mentioning his own.
Late in his life, Sim was asked about his Oklahoma roots.
"The word Okie used to be a dirty word, but I grew to be proud of it," said Iness. "But I think all the Okies, former Okies are proud of what they’ve done in the last fifty years."
Days after attending a San Joaquin Valley Olympic reunion held in his hometown of Tulare, where he was reunited with many friends, Sim Iness passed away quietly in his home in Porterville on May 23, 1996 at the age of 65.
His passing would leave behind a life full of rich memories to all those he knew, as well as to those he briefly met. Sim Iness, the gentle giant, the Olympic giant with Oklahoma blood in his veins, lived his life to the fullest, and strove to help others reach their own heights.
Iness was buried on May 25, 1996 at the Hillcrest Cemetery in his adopted hometown of Porterville.