by JILL DUNCAN
Steve Wilhelm has a lot of sports memories for someone who retired at age 21. The former Olympian has taken his career from the fields to a desk and like his track record, the law firm he heads is something to admire. The 33-year-old La Costa resident has expanded the practice beyond Rancho Santa Fe and now includes an office on San Diego.
Wilhelm, who was honored five times as an all-American track star, gave up a sports career that had branched into football at the age of 21. He says that even though sports became a vocational option, it wasn’t always a sure bet financially.
“It was a lot of fun and it washard to let all go, but it doesn’t always put food on the table,” said the attorney.
Best known in the sports world as part of the Kansas Trio, Wilhelm, along with two other University of Kansas shot putters, swept national collegiate titles from 1967 to 1971. During that time Wilhelm traveled with the national track team and later accepted an alternate position on the 1972 Olympic t team.
A native Californian, Wilhelm attended Fremont High School near San Francisco where he still holds school records. He finished his sophomore year the top shot putter in the nation, and when he graduated he left with the second highest national shot put ranking point total.
Although never encouraged to excel in high school sports Wilhelm was a competitive swimmer, wrestler and track team member.
“My parents were what you would call eggheads. They emphasized academics and cultural studies such as music, art and literature,” he said. “I was never even allowed to go out for the football team.”
Despite their “anti-sport” views, Wilhelm and his two brothers excelled in sports. His oldest brother Bob was an All-American water polo player at Stanford University. Bruce, who appears in Lite Beer commercials, is an ABC sports commentator. The older brother by four years is a Pan-American weightlifting champ and 1976 Olympics silver medalist in super-heavy weightlifting.
“He’s made the most fame and fortune from his athletic abilities,” Steve said.
“Bruce and I were both shot putters in high school and we had a friendly, sibling rivalry. All through high school I was behind him, but when I was in college I beat him,” said Wilhelm, who holds the family record of 67 feet with a 16-pound shot.
And speaking of college, Wilhelm broke a family tradition of attending Stanford where his grandfather, father, and brothers went. Instead, Wilhelm “headed for the prairle” to attend the University of Kansas on a scholarship given for the athletic and academic achievements.
Why would a track star leave the sunny west, where national track records are often held, to attend school in the snowy Midwest?
“For one thing, Kansas is rated well academically, and the track and field team has very talented athletes,” explained Wilhelm. “If you do well out here, you get a small ‘by-line’ but out there you get lots of recognition and publicity.”
And that is just what he got. The awesome “Kansas Trio” received coverage from Sports Illustrated and Newsweek magazines. The shot put team holds an outstanding National Collegiate Athletic Association record which boasts of three indoor and two outdoor championships
In the midst of his college days, Wilhelm joined the national track team and toured the world to compete in places such as Paris, Moscow and Leningrad.
“It was a great thrill to travel and compete representing our country. It was a neat feeling of accomplishment standing at the top of the victory platform receiving awards for the U.S.,” said Wilhelm “You get fired-up and very patriotic, especially in countries where there is a lot of anti-American sentiment.”
Shot putting wasn’t his only college sport. During his junior year, Wilhelm was a football nose guard. His coach tried to convince him to “red shirt” as a senior to conserve one year of eligibility. Even though the decision might have developed Wilhelm into a professional, he had other ideas.
“I thought about going pro, but I had my goals set on law school and the ’72 Olympics – and I didn’t want to sacrifice either, “ the five-time All-American said.
While most 1972 Olympic hopefuls were devoting full-time schedules toward preparing themselves for the trials, Wilhelm’s attention were divided among his first-year law studies, a part-time job, volunteer coaching and his new bride Margie
“It was an insane year. I might have made the team if I had gotten a part-time job and concentrated on training,” said Wilhelm, who along with his brother Bruce, were shot putting Olympian alternates.
Although most weightlifting athletes develop fully in their late twenties, Wilhelm gave up his sports career at 21. Looking back, he said athletics is a good training for careers which follow sports.
“The key is to make the transition from athletics to other areas of life. The discipline and hard work involved in high level competition gives you that attitude that there is nothing or no one you can’t take on,” he said.
Keeping busy with his law practice and family, he still finds time to enjoy sports. He runs, lifts weights and keeps a shot in his La Costa garage. He offers coaching expertise at Rancho Santa Fe, Torrey Pines and Sweetwater high schools.
Father of two children, Joshua, 5, and Kristina, 2,. Wilhelm said it will be interesting to see if his kids are interested in sports. “I’ll never push my kids into athletics,” he said. “The desire to become a champion has to come from inside, not outsite.”