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Harold Connolly dies at 79; won gold medal in hammer throw at 1956 Olympics

Harold Connolly, who at the 1956 Olympics captured the gold medal in the hammer throw as well as the attention of the world for his Cold War romance with the discus champion from Czechoslovakia, died Wednesday. He was 79.

Connolly, who was one of the greatest ever to compete in his event, was exercising on a stationary bicycle at a gym in Catonsville, Md., when he fainted and hit his head on the floor. He died of brain trauma from a concussion, his family said.

A four-time Olympian, Connolly broke the American record for the hammer throw 12 times and the world record seven times.

His accomplishments helped place the United States at the forefront of an event in which the country had struggled to be competitive, according to track and field histories.

His achievements were all the more impressive because he had only one fully functional arm in a sport that usually demands two.

Because of a problem during his birth, Connolly's left arm had limited motion and was four inches shorter than his right.

"Harold inspired countless Americans with his ability to overcome physical hardship en route to sporting excellence," Scott Blackmun, chief executive of the U.S. Olympic Committee, told The Times in an e-mail. "He was a great teacher and a tireless, lifelong promoter of the sport."

Wearing modified ballet slippers to secure his footing in the concrete ring, Connolly triumphed at the 1956 Melbourne Games with a fifth-round heave of 207 feet, 3 inches.

But his romance with Olga Fikotová, gold medalist in the discus, garnered the headlines. Their romance captivated a world hungry for a thaw in U.S.-Soviet relations.

When Czech officials spirited her away, Connolly tracked her down in her native country and they were allowed to marry. A crowd estimated at 40,000 attended their 1957 civil ceremony in Prague.

"People remember this American-Communist romance that was pretty wild in its day," said Rich Perelman, a longtime local track and field expert. "Hal said, 'You know, I was interested in Olga, not the Cold War.'''

The couple eventually settled in the Los Angeles area and had four children before they divorced in 1973. Their son James was the National Collegiate Athletic Assn. decathlon champion in 1987 while at UCLA.

Connolly's second wife, the former Pat Daniels, was also an Olympian whom he first met when she competed in track at the 1960 Games.

He was born Aug. 1, 1931, in Somerville, Mass., into an athletic family. His father and uncle were boxers. Despite his arm injury, he was expected to become an athlete, Connolly later said.

"I had to prove my value on the playing field," he told the Washington Post in 1988. "That was my motivation: 'Give me a chance and I'll show you.'"

In his senior year in high school, he passed the football physical by hiding his shriveled arm from the doctor. He made the team and was soon a starting tackle.

At Boston College, Connolly competed in the shot put and discus. While waiting for a ride home his senior year, he started retrieving hammers that had been thrown in practice. His return tosses of the 16-pound ball attached to a wire and handle went farther than the initial throws.

By 1955, he had become the first American to surpass 200 feet, throwing 201 feet, five inches. He also went on to compete in the 1960, 1964 and 1968 Olympics.

In 1953, he left Boston College with a bachelor's degree in English and earned a master's in 1963 in English as a Second Language at UCLA.

For about 30 years, Connolly taught at Santa Monica High School, where he coached the track team and added sports literature to the English curriculum. He also served as an assistant principal.

In the late 1980s, he went to Washington, D.C., to direct U.S. programs for Special Olympics International and on occasion would present himself as an example of a disabled athlete who "made the varsity," he once said.

Since retiring in 1998, he had lived in Virginia and moved to Catonsville five months ago to be closer to family.

Through the years he had coached a number of elite athletes, his wife said, and promoted the sport through his website, hammerthrow.com.

"If you even looked like you wanted to spin in a circle," his wife said, "he would be giving you a hammer."

In addition to his second wife, now known as Billee Pat, Connolly is survived by four children from his first marriage, Mark of Las Vegas, twins James of Marina del Rey and Merja Freund of Corona del Mar, and Nina Southard of Temecula; and three other children, Brad Winslow of San Jose, Adam of Silver Spring, Md., and Shannon Podduturi of New York City; and five grandchildren.

valerie.nelson@latimes.com

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