Skip to main content

From the Olympics to HGSE, and Back Again

When David Hemery arrived at HGSE in 1971, his focus was clear: By the following summer, he would earn his master's degree and a spot at the summer Olympic Games.

David Hemery
Completing his master’s in education and social psychology wasn’t David Hemery’s only goal for the year when he arrived at HGSE in 1971. The 1968 Olympic gold medalist for Great Britain — and world record holder in the 400 meter hurdles — was also deep into his training for the 1972 summer Olympics, which would take place just two months after his graduation from the Ed School.

For most people, the demands of either goal would be challenging enough, but Hemery, Ed.M.’72, found inspiration to continue working toward both in one of his first courses at HGSE, Optimal Human Functioning.

“The professor said, ‘Here is your first assignment: I want you to ask yourselves: Who am I? What am I? Where have I come from and where am I going?’ Hemery saw this as four deep questions involving body, mind, emotion, and spirit, however his immediate focus was clear: He was a student and an athlete, and he was going to HGSE graduation and the Olympics.

“I was extremely disciplined during my year,” says Hemery, whose adviser was then-Dean Ted Sizer. “I ran 10 miles along the Charles River tow path before breakfast each morning, attended lectures, then in the afternoon did weights or sprint hills or track repetitions. In the evening I studied, read, and wrote. There was not a lot of time to socialize.”

While at HGSE, Hemery‘s interest in psychology, specifically positive psychology, continued to grow. He was particularly moved by the words of HGSE Professor Chris Agyris, who taught that “people should be involved in decisions that personally affect them.” This message has stayed with Hemery through the completion of his doctorate in humanistic education and social psychology at Boston University in 1984, and his career in education and athletics, including his current position as founder and co-director of 21st Century Legacy, a British charity that provides the program, Be the Best You Can Be!, that helps young people choose to become more aware and self-responsible.

In 1972, after having achieved the first goal of a master’s degree from Harvard, Hemery traveled to Munich for the Summer Olympics. This was Hemery’s second Olympics after winning gold in the 400m hurdles in the Mexico City Games, but this time he felt very different. Having been told that he was past his “sell-by date” as a sprinter, he was feeling much less positive than he had during his first Games.

“I faced the possibility of losing by imagining losing,” he says, noting that the mental training was just as important as the physical. “[I was] telling myself, ‘Losing will not be the end of your world, you’re just going to try your hardest to do your best.’  Unfortunately, this negative focus killed my adrenaline, so helpful in sprinting your fastest.”

The Munich Games were tragically interrupted, however, when 11 athletes from Israel were captured and killed in a terrorist attack.

“It was a very sad moment when the environment of peaceful global co-existence and personal expression was violently torn open,” says Hemery, noting that the attacks are what most people remember about the Munich Games. “Some suggested that the rest of the Games should be canceled. If that had carried, I believe that it would have been a double loss; something intrinsically positive being cut off by something else intrinsically negative.”

The Games did go on after the tragedy, with Hemery winning bronze in the 400m hurdles and silver in the 4x400m relay — the “full set of Olympic medal colors,” he says. His second goal was now complete.


The latest research, perspectives, and highlights from the Harvard Graduate School of Education

Related Articles