HARLINGEN — Billy Gene Pemelton is a sports lover, as well as a farm lover, but there is more to him than meets the eye.
Always wearing his cowboy hat and his Olympic ring, the almost 80-year-old recently looked back at his athletic career.
Pemelton placed eighth in the pole vault at the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo and later went on to win an amateur championship in the sport, according to the Rio Grande Valley Sports Hall of Fame.
But, Pemelton is nonchalant about his accolades.
He said he considers himself a sports lover, as simple as that.
Yet, his house is full of remembrances. On one wall, there is a framed photo of him at the Olympics, and to the right, a picture of his son, who followed his path and participated in pole vault and track and field for years.
Pemelton was born and raised in Mercedes but moved to Harlingen because he enrolled his children into Christian schools.
He said he started his love for sports in the fifth grade, when he played football. Later on, he became a hurdler and pole vaulter in middle school and continued throughout his high school years.
When asked why he joined those sports, Pemelton said he joined because he was fast.
“We had relays and hurdles, and I won first at state and broke the record for pole vault and got a scholarship for Abilene Christian University,” Pemelton said.
“I was good at it. The coach told us it was pole vault day and asked us to run down. And I guess that day I out jumped everybody else and became a pole vaulter,” he said.
After college, he became one of the top vaulters in the state.
Pemelton visited Oregon, where he qualified to try out for the Olympics, and competed in New York City, where he placed second.
“I never thought about being that good,” he said. “It was my love. There was hardly anything better than playing football and track. I even played some basketball.”
His university had previous Olympians, which sort of foreshadowed Pemelton’s future.
He said he never imagined going to the Olympics.
“When I was vaulting, I was just thinking about winning the college deal,” Pemelton said.
He stayed in Japan for 29 days during the Olympics, which he recalled being a wonderful experience.
Pemelton was 23 years old when he competed.
“I was married then, and my wife came with me. And I had a little boy. It was a wonderful deal,” he said.
After the Olympics, he continued to do meets every week in California.
During the weekends when he would compete, Pemelton would fly on Saturday mornings and came right back to his farm after.
“The next week, I would go to San Francisco and jump, and I jumped in Madison Square Garden in New York and that won me a trip to Berlin, Germany, and London, England,” he said.
Pemelton said he did not think much about his next move, but he goes by one way of thinking.
“If that guy can do it, I can do it, too,” he said.
“There was a boy from SMU when I was a freshman who was jumping 15 feet, and I said if he can do it, I am going to do it also. A couple of years later I beat his record,” Pemelton said.
He trained very hard. His coach always told him he was the first one on the track and the last one to leave.
Pemelton competed for another year and broke a record in Louisville, Kentucky. However, he retired early.
“I could not make any money. I had to make a living,” he said laughing.
“If I was doing it now, you can cash pretty good, but when we were in Japan, they paid us $10 a day. Every 10 days we would get $200,” Pemelton said.
The 2020 Olympics are in Tokyo again, delayed a year because of the pandemic, and Pemelton said he is glad he was able to experience it during a time COVID-19 was not an issue.
“I think you get your medals from a tray now. They don’t put them on you. That is what I heard on TV. They have to do it that way, and it is a shame they can’t do it like they used to,” he said.
“I got COVID seven months ago, but I only had a fever for a few hours. And when I left, I felt great. The next day my legs were weaker,” Pemelton said.
He was offered an assistant coach position for track at his alma mater, but he wanted to do both farming and coaching.
Pemelton said he could not do both and chose farming.
Currently, he farms in Mercedes and Santa Rosa. But, he keeps the sport alive.
“I coached while I was in Abilene. I coached high school kids while I was working out. I used to go here in Harlingen with the track team and in Mercedes,” he said.
In 2017, the city of Mercedes dedicated a track stadium to him. The city also proclaimed March 7 as Billy Gene Pemelton Day.
“It was very nice. I don’t know how that came up, but it was a surprise,” he said.
“I am just a real sports fan. The Dallas Cowboys are my favorite and track and field is one of my favorite sports. I loved it because I was good at it, but I love to see the top performers. I enjoy that a lot,” Pemelton said.