I love it when readers email column suggestions; I get to tell you about the most interesting people.
Wolfgang Heise is a good example.
Heise was born in West Germany near the Dutch border in 1938. His father was a military officer and became a prisoner of war during World War II, held by the U.S. in Czechoslovakia.
Heise, his mother and baby brother – who later died at age 2-and-a-half – moved to Nordhorn, Germany, where they had family. When his father was released, he joined them.
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Heise, a strong man who stands 6-foot-4 1/2, was on the track and field team in high school. He also played goalie at the highest level in a German amateur soccer league.
“As a teenager, I played for the North German team against England,” Heise said. “I loved international competition.”
He continued playing for the top amateur team until he broke his leg in a game when he was 18.
“I decided I was finished with competitive soccer and went over to the track and field club of Nordhorn, Lythe Athletic,” he said. “They had a great coach who taught the importance of good discipline.
“I wanted to be a decathlon champion. They were considered the best athletes because they had to excel in 10 events.”
The gifted, driven athlete won the top honor on the state level, then went on to be the 1958 German national champion at the junior level.
“The competitions were challenging,” Heise said. “I competed in the 100-meter run, long jump, shot put, high jump and 400 meters on the first day. The second was the 110-meter hurdles, disc throw, pole vault, javelin and then the 1,500 meters.
“You had to learn to pace yourself to make it through all the events as a winner,” Heise said.
Heise said Nordhorn hosted three textile mills that employed many of the townfolk. Heise started apprenticing at a mill in 1955, dyeing fabrics while continuing to train for his many competitions.
“I was called for mandatory 12 months military obligation when I was 20, just before I was to begin my college studies in Krefeld,” Heise said.
There was a very good track and field club nearby where Heise could train while in the army. In 1960, he placed sixth in an attempt for an Olympic berth for the Summer Olympics in Rome, but only the top three athletes in an event could compete.
Heise entered college after the army and studied to be a textile chemist or engineer. He continued training and competing.
In 1961, during a six-country competition in Paris, Heise came in second, beaten only by an athlete who had placed in the Rome Olympics.
“My best year was 1963,” Heise said. “I was ranked 10th in the world in the decathlon and competed on the prestigious German International Team. I just missed being one of the three to quality for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics by a fraction of a second. I went as the alternate.
“After the Olympics, my team continued participating in international competitions as we traveled. We had competitions in Hong Kong, Bangkok, Calcutta and New Delhi, for example. Part of the Polish team traveled with us. We saw the Taj Mahal, climbed Mount Fuji and had the most amazing time.”
Heise said he had to stop competing in 1965 because of injuries.
Heise met his wife, Rosita, in Cottbus, East Germany, when he was there visiting his grandparents. Rosita escaped East Germany in 1961, two weeks before the Berlin Wall was built.
Heise said Rosita fled carrying only her pocketbook and did not even tell her family she was leaving.
“Had Rosita waited longer, she probably wouldn’t be sitting here today,’ said Heise.
Heise began working for Bayer in 1962 and married Rosita in 1963. In 1967, Heise came to work in the U.S. for what he thought would be three to five years.
“We are still here, after having lived in New Jersey, Atlanta and Charlotte,” Heise said. “This is our second time living in Charlotte, and we’ve been here this time since 1993, in the Sharon Woods area.”
During the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Heise said he helped some of the German athletes come here to train. He and Rosita hosted some of the German track and field athletes for dinner.
VISA sponsored a get-together for past Olympic decathlon athletes, and Heise was invited.
“I’ve had many wonderful experiences,” Heise said.
The couple has two daughters, a son and five grandchildren. They travel to Germany every year to visit family and friends.
Heise stays fit by working out at the Harris Y and golfing.