The Wheaties Story

Friday, December 21, 1984 ­ The phone rings and I hear a voice on the other end say, "Hi, Peter, this is Maryn Tickle from Wheaties and I've got some good news for you. You're one of our six winners." And so began an interesting month.

Winner? Winner of what?

Wheaties was sponsoring a second "Search for Champions," a marketing gimmick to sell more cereal. There were two parts of the Search. In part one, there was a ballot on the back of each Wheaties box for several months with which you could nominate someone to be on the Wheaties box. Schools, communities, and sports clubs were encouraged to support their local star and send in lots of ballots, buying lots of boxes of Wheaties in the process. The top 50 vote getters would move on to part two. In part two, a panel of judges would pick 6 winners out of the 50, and those 6 would appear on a Wheaties box.

The first Search had been in 1982/83, and USOF decided to support Eric Weyman, the US Champion in 1980, 1981, and 1982. Enough orienteers in enough clubs sent in ballots for Eric that he made the top 50, but he wasn't chosen as one of the 6 winners. Nevertheless, the sponsoring organization for each of the 50 got $1 per ballot, which seemed ok. I think several hundred ballots were sent in for Eric.

The second Search came out in early 1984. Virginia Lehman and I were the 1983 champs, and USOF decided to support me. Once again, the word went out, and once again enough ballots were sent in to make the top 50. I think that Chuck Ferguson had the record with 19 boxes/ballots, after which he claimed he would never eat Wheaties again.

As one of the top 50 vote getters, I then had to send in letters of reference, a personal sports history (going back to playing second base in Little League and right tackle in 8th grade football), and anything else I wanted to use to influence the judges. It was a bit like applying to college, make you best case and see what happens. Except I was doing this at age 40.

The letters of reference came from Dave "Legs" Linthicum, a "sports journalist" for the moment, whose talents with the written word have always included an ability to stretch the truth, and from USOF President Per Stensby, who was happy to sign a letter that I wrote myself. Since the Search was for Amateur athletes, it seemed only appropriate to stress the pureness/goodness of orienteering and the lack of big money in the sport, not that we would have refused big money if it had suddenly materialized.

So all this stuff was sent in to the panel of judges. I didn't have high hopes, but I thought I'd put together a really good application. An application that did not include a photo, because, well, it wasn't required.

And then I sort of forgot about it, until the phone call from Ms. Tickle. And then all hell broke loose. Front-page photos "above the fold" in both local papers, lots of phones calls, a camera crew was WBZ in Boston came out to shoot a piece. And Gail and I got set to head off to Los Angeles on an all-expenses-paid trip to southern California for the awards ceremony and to get the photo taken that would be on the box.

The trip was an experience that, I have to admit, was fun and exciting, even though I was quite nervous in advance, wondering what I was getting into and feeling a distinct lack of self-confidence ­ yes, I was national champion, but if anyone knew how bad we were in the US compared to the international standard....

Anyway, the 6 of us were picked up at the airport and chauffeured everywhere by limousine, a nice room at a posh LA hotel, everything taken care of at no expense, just had to ask. The photo session was in a Hollywood studio, took all morning, first make-up, then trying lots of different angles for the shot, shooting several rolls of Polaroids to see how things looked (that was the technology at the time), stopping at one point because my O-top needed ironing(!), bringing out a big fan to add a little more life to my hair, and then the final photos.

We got a tour of Hollywood, and then a fancy dinner that night where I got to meet a few real stars including Olympic pole vault champion from the 1950s Bob Richards ("I know about orienteering," he told me, "that's where you run across mountains and eat lizards."), golfer Sam Snead, who had too much to drink and spoke way too long, and Wheaties current star, Mary Lou Retton, gold medalist at the 1984 Olympics in gymnastics. I talked at one point with Carson Conrad, former director of the President's Council on Physical Fitness, and he said he had really been impressed by the comments in my application about the virtues of amateur sports, and he'd ranked me #1 of the 50. Ah, how far you can get in life by telling people what they want to hear.

Back the next morning to the LA Coliseum for a breakfast, again with the stars and now with camera crews from three local TV stations. Mary Lou was the big star. She was accompanied by her brother, who was no taller but twice as wide and strong as an ox, and looked like he easily could pick up Mary Lou with one hand if he cared to. Mary Lou was looking like she needed an extra shot of caffeine, but in fact all she needed was for the little red light on the camera to go on, the light that meant, "We're live!" And in about one second she became this upbeat, excited, charming young women, the perfect interview, the perfect spokesperson. When the light went off, back to looking like she was up too early. And then repeat it two more times for the other stations. An impressive performance. Some people just have the knack, I guess.

We got our turns too, live on LA TV, I think I didn't embarrass myself. Then a chance to give a few remarks, and then it wrapped up. A lot of fun, but I sure wouldn't want to live like that.

It took another 10 months for the boxes to come out. I don't think there were too many, though I heard of sightings in quite a few different places. Did it have any real impact on orienteering? I don't think so, but we certainly had a lot of laughs about it. And if you bought a box. you got a coupon for free bowling, too!