Doreen Wilber – Olympic Plaza A Legacy That Ordinary People Can Achieve Extraordinary Things
“Focus, believe in yourself and shoot only one arrow at a time.” Those are life lessons that were taught to hundreds of young people by 1972 Olympic gold medalist Doreen Wilber. Her commitment to helping area youth learn about archery but, more importantly, to learn about themselves made her more than an Olympic trail blazer.
For a dozen years, Wilber and her husband Paul (Skeeter) opened their home in Jefferson and their hearts to young people in the JOAD (Junior Olympic Archery Development) group. The fundamentals of archery were taught along with modeling sportsmanship and a strong work ethic. Their home on an acreage in Jefferson offered a perfect setting for archery practice. Wilber’s only rule was that the youngsters couldn’t aim at the house!
As she taught the rudiments of archery, she quietly but passionately challenged youth and adults to believe in themselves, stay true to their goals and to dream big. The analogies she drew between archery and life and the gracious manner of her delivery became a lasting legacy for her students.
Developing a permanent reminder of Doreen’s accomplishments and ideals was the inspiration for the plaza, an idea born as she left this life in 2008 at the age of 78. One of Wilber’s Jefferson archery students, Don Orris, joined with Larry Fie and Jim Rose, also of Jefferson, to share the story of Doreen’s impact on the archery world and young people.
“The 1972 Olympic Games were 39 years ago. We want to honor her achievements and who she was, telling her story to those who don’t know now and to those who come in the future, “said Orris. Following years of planning, dreaming and hard work, the plaza is now a reality. A circle of paving bricks, centered by a marble pedestal, the life-size bronze statue of Wilber by Illinois sculptor Jeff Adams, is the centerpiece of the plaza, built northeast of the Greene County Community Center at the corner of Lincolnway and Vine Streets.
To complete the Olympic venue experience, a bronze target has also been placed across the street at a distance similar to what Wilber shot in competition. Visualizing the distance lends a sense of realism and involvement in the experience.
Supplemental interpretive signage details Wilber’s archery career and permanent stone benches donated by the Rotary Club of Jefferson and the Greene County Community Foundation will encircle the statue. Lighting will allow visitors to enjoy the plaza throughout the day and evening.
The total project cost is approximately $98,000 raised from individual and business donations. A major grant from the Greene County Community Foundation of $25,000 fueled the fundraising campaign and lent a sense that “we can do this,” Orris said. In addition, donated services and labor have played an important role in completing the project.
The developers of the project were faced with a number of challenges as the project progressed. But true to Doreen’s teaching, they preservered one step at a time keeping the goal of creating the Olympic plaza sharply focused and in view.
To fully understand the enormity of the Olympic honor, a few facts should be reviewed. Wilber was a newcomer to the sport, shooting competitively for only 15 years before winning the Olympic gold. She first picked up a bow in 1957 when Skeeter received a bow and set of arrows as payment for automobile repair work he had done. It quickly became evident that Doreen had the natural talent for the sport. There were no professional coaches or commercial sponsors. Skeeter was her only coach and advisor. Under his tutelage, Doreen honed her skills and sharpened her athleticism.
From 1963 to 1973 she never lost a tournament at the state level. In ten years as a national competitor from 1965 to 1975 she medaled eight times winning five gold, two silver and one bronze. Internationally she rewrote the record book establishing ten new records and the first woman to shoot over 1200 in world competition. The high point of her archery career was winning the Olympic gold medal on September 15, 1972 becoming the first woman from Iowa to win an Olympic gold medal which she accomplished at age 42.
Archery was an Olympic sport from 1900 to 1920 when it was discontinued. It was reintroduced in 1972 marking the beginning of the modern era of archery competition at the Olympic Games. The timing was right for Doreen, known to be a fierce competitor but equally remembered for her gracious sportsmanship.
In her many years of competition, she would carry extra archery supplies and equipment to share with those from countries where these items were scarce. In her mind, she wanted her competitors to have every advantage she did and the result would be based on skill not equipment. The stories are legion of her efforts to help competitors and other Olympians even hours before competition.
When Wilber returned from the Olympics she received a hero’s welcome, greeted by the Governor of Iowa, Robert D. Ray, and a caravan of cars two miles long escorted her back to Jefferson. There she was welcomed by a crowd of around 2,000 gathered around the courthouse square.
Her family, friends and neighbors were proud of her accomplishments on the world stage but Doreen herself was humble. To her, the values of her rural upbringing, commitment to family and community and high ideals overshadowed athletic prowess. Her life lessons of hard work, belief in big dreams and in one’s self are lasting legacies. All those who visit the plaza will be inspired by the story of Doreen, her achievements and the ideals she modeled.