Grand Forks native Virgil Hill remembers 1984 Olympics, plans comeback
Just days before the 1984 summer Olympics in Los Angeles, Virgil Hill fell sick.
The 165-pound Olympic boxer from Grand Forks was in a Colorado Springs, Colo., hospital with a 103-degree fever.
His Olympic team of 11 others, including Evander Holyfield, Frank Tate and Pernell Whitaker, flew to California.
By the time 19-year-old Hill recovered and made it to California, he was eight pounds overweight and four days from weighing in for the Games.
The team was ready to replace him with 21-year-old Michael Nunn, who Hill defeated during the Olympic trials, "but I beat him up, so they had to take me," Hill said.
To cut the added weight, Hill stuck to a diet of ice cream and a slice of bread.
Those four days were a testament of the work ethic Hill attributes to living on the plains of North Dakota. He was able to cut the weight and move on to defeat four boxers from Barbados, the United Kingdom, Yugoslavia and Algeria to make it into the 165-pound middleweight division gold-medal bout.
"Nobody gives us the free ride being from North Dakota, we always have to work hard and prove ourselves and do more," he said. "Because of that, I felt I was able to get in there to do what I had to do."
Hill, now 48, was one of about 6,800 Olympic athletes from 140 nations in 1984. And today, almost 28 years later, he is planning a professional comeback as the 2012 London Olympics kick off today.
An estimated 10,500 athletes from 204 nations will compete in the Games that run through August 12.
The 9 p.m. opening ceremony will feature 10,000 performers and is expected to draw an estimated 1 billion viewers worldwide. Likewise, each team will enter the 80,000-seat stadium in Olympic Park, London and parade around the track.
Hill vividly remembers his walk around Los Angeles' Memorial Stadium.
"It was remarkable, everyone was out in the stadium walking around and seeing all the people in the stands," he said. "Half of us were dehydrated from cutting weight, and we were out there in the heat."
Hill took pride in not only the country, but his home state during the opening walk.
Sporting the North Dakota flag, Olympic officials threatened to remove him if he did it again, he said.
"It became a big thing in the L.A. papers," he said. "Everyone was waiting to see if I carried it, and when I did it again, people just roared."
He carried the flag through his professional career, as well. "I was proud of where I came from; the state, at the time, had less than 600,000 people and most cities have over 1 million people," he said. "For myself, kids, family, I was proud to be a North Dakotan, and I still am."
Gold Medal fight
But the Olympic officials were the least of his worries.
Going toe-to-toe with South Korea's Shin Joon-Sup for the gold medal, on the final day of the Olympics, Hill would eventually lose a controversial decision and take home the silver medal.
The original 3-2 decision, in favor of Hill, went to a jury vote which was overturned 4-1 in favor of Joon-Sup.
"I was disappointed," Hill said. "I was so much; I didn't even go to the final closing ceremony, which is one of my biggest regrets."
Others scoffed at the judge's decision.
Hill's uncle and former Grand Forks County Sheriff, Dan Hill, said Virgil was robbed in that fight.
"I think he won it, but judges obviously saw it differently," Dan Hill said. "Still, it was a successful Olympics for him, nothing wrong with coming home with the silver, everyone was proud of him."
But Virgil wasn't always the Olympic athlete he was in 1984.
Dan Hill described his nephew as "a real character."
Growing up in Grand Forks, Dan said Virgil was always high-spirited, having a good time and teasing his Aunt Sue, Dan's wife.
"I don't think he had an enemy here at all," Dan said. "Whenever he went anywhere, people gathered around him."
Virgil, at the age of 8, found his way into boxing with the help of longtime boxer and Grand Forks pharmacist Clayton Ness.
Ness operated the local Golden Gloves program for 20 years out of the basement of the camera store he operated from 1972 to 1979, Ness EpKo, formerly at 409 DeMers Ave.
To train, Virgil would go through the backdoor of the building, and down a narrow stairway.
The boxing ring filled most of the basement.
"The ropes were up against the wall as plaster fell off of them," Hill said. "If you stayed on the ropes and got punched, your head would hit the wall as well, and you would learn how to move."
That ring was key to how Hill trained and his future success.
"I've always been a mover and counterpuncher, so I didn't take a lot of punishment," he said. "I wasn't one to take a punch and then give a punch."
Hill's professional debut came after the Olympics, in November 1984, against Arthur Wright at Madison Square Garden in New York City.
Hill won the fight by technical knock out in two rounds and would go on to win the next 29 bouts until losing to Thomas Hearns in 1991.
He won five World Boxing Association light heavyweight titles throughout his career, beginning in 1987, when he beat Leslie Stewart of Trinidad and Tobago.
Twenty-six of his 57 professional fights were in the North Dakota cities of Williston, Minot, Grand Forks and Bismarck, where a majority of his bouts were held.
But on April 21, 1996, Hill retained his WBA belt at UND's Ralph Engelstad Arena, going up against Lou Del Valle.
Hill later came back to Grand Forks in 2002 to face Joey DeGrandis in the then-new Ralph Engelstad Arena.
"It was crazy; I had never seen the facility. Something like that in North Dakota is unbelievable," Hill said. "They rightfully deserve it for what they accomplish in hockey."
By 2007, Hill lost his WBA cruiserweighttitle to Turkey's Firat Arslan, and hasn't fought since.
Motivated after his father Robert's death last October, Hill began extensive training for a return into the professional boxing world.
"What helped was I would go for long walks, which reinspired me to finish what I started in boxing," he said.
His father was instrumental to his boxing career, traveling to many of his fights worldwide, he said. Virgil's nickname, "Quicksilver" came from his father. It's based on the 1984 silver medal, and Virgil's quickness in the ring.
"I used to be called Sugar Hill, that was when I was a little soft," Virgil said. "Just after I turned pro, Dad wanted something else."
Hill has been training for the past nine months, most of it with California-based boxing coach, Freddie Roach.
He hopes to get a fight this September.
For now, Hill and his wife, Carla, reside in New Jersey and operate a boxing promoting company.
The couple has two children: Alaysia, 18, and Adaria, 14, who has been running in the Junior Olympic finals in Baltimore this past week. Virgil also has a son with former-Olympic runner, Denean Hill, Virgil Hill Jr., 22, who was drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals in 2009 and now plays for the Class-A Quad Cities River Bats.
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