No one alive today has seen George Coleman Poage 1903, MAx1904 run. Only grainy black-and-white photos remain of the UW track star who became the first African American to win an Olympic medal.
But Elmer Petersen MS’56, MFA’61 has seen hurdlers crouch in their blocks, listening for the starter pistol to crack, and then leap up and over the bars. So when the city of La Crosse, Wisconsin, commissioned Petersen to create a larger-than-life-sized bronze sculpture to honor Poage, who grew up in the city, he knew he didn’t want to simply build a standing statue. He imagined something more fluid, a piece reminiscent of thumbing a flip book’s pages to reveal a short movie of sorts.
“The concept is exactly what I envisioned, with him flying over the hurdle and nothing under him,” says Petersen, who is known locally for his large public sculptures of lacrosse players and eagles. The sculpture was unveiled during the 2016 Rio Olympics in a La Crosse park named after the hurdler.
It’s a fitting tribute to a trailblazer who has been somewhat lost to history. Poage was a standout student and athlete at the UW, setting school records while specializing in sprints and hurdles. The history major was the first black athlete to run for the Badgers and the first black athlete to win Big Ten championships in the 440-yard dash and 220-yard hurdles in 1904. He drew the attention of Milwaukee Athletic Club coaches, who included him on a team sent to the 1904 Saint Louis Olympics. Poage ran four events, winning bronze medals in the 400-meter and 200-meter hurdles.
Petersen, who lives in Galesville, Wisconsin, didn’t know a Badger was the first African American to stand on an Olympic podium. “I think the difference is he didn’t win a gold,” he says. “If he had, he’d probably be up there with Jesse Owens.”
Published in the Spring 2017 issue