Conroe man’s life one for the record books

Originally found at
Written By, Nancy Flake

He may live a quiet life now, but Rowland “Flip” Wolfe has seen – and helped create – some pretty exciting moments in the 20th Century.

A resident at Hearthstone Assisted Living in Conroe, Wolfe, 95, is known by all his neighbors as “Flip” for a good reason: He won a gold medal in tumbling during the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles.

Unable to join the military for World War II – although he tried to sign up – he contributed to the U.S. war effort in another significant way by working on a phase of the Manhattan Project to create the atomic bomb.

Born Oct. 8, 1914, Wolfe was one of two twin boys, although his brother didn’t survive.

“I was anemic and underdeveloped,” he said.

Because of his health, his father took him to the Dallas Athletic Club to be coached by Marshall Brown. There, according to biography information from the U.S. Gymnastics Hall of Fame’s website at, Wolfe won the club championship in his weight class in boxing and wrestling.

Brown was a “circus brat,” Wolfe said, who wanted him to go with him into the circus, but Wolfe’s father wouldn’t let him.

But Brown did coach Wolfe in tumbling. The young man was talented enough to win the Southern American Athletic Union Junior Championships in 1929, when he was 14. Two years later, he won a silver medal at the 1931 national AAU championships.

He then took the gold medal at the National AAU Olympic trials, qualifying him for the Los Angeles games.

There, his signature move of a double twisting layout – a double flip performed while twisting – guaranteed him a gold medal at the age of 17.

“He was the first American to win a gold medal in gymnastics at the Olympics, and he was the youngest American at the time to win a gold medal in gymnastics,” said his son, Brad Wolfe, of Bentwater.

“The mats back then were filled with straw. It was like tumbling on the ground. It’s mind-boggling to think what he could have done if he’d had the technology available today.”

In today’s floor exercises, which are tumbling routines, gymnasts perform somersaults and other moves on mats over floors mounted on springs that enable gymnasts to jump higher and help reduce injuries.

After the Olympics, Life magazine did a four-page spread showing Wolfe’s impressive moves. One of the photos shows his tumbling pass from start to finish. Brad Wolfe has a copy of the magazine.

A video showing his tumbling skills can be found at by searching for Rowland Wolfe on the site. Part of the video shows him somersaulting over nine boys and young men all crouched on the ground below him.

“Flip” Wolfe was asked to compete in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, but his father wanted him to stay in school.

In college at Western Reserve University, Wolfe took a number of science courses with the dream of becoming a doctor, according to the USGHOF website. However, he didn’t have the money to complete his studies after earning his undergraduate dream.

As a captain in his school’s Reserve Officer Training Corps, Wolfe tried to sign up for the military when the U.S. entered World War II.

“The military wouldn’t take me because I was working on the atomic bomb,” he said.

Wolfe didn’t know at the time he was working on the bomb, however. He was working with uranium at a laboratory in Cleveland, Ohio, after his college chemistry professor recommended him for a job.

“We didn’t know what the end result of the project would be,” Wolfe said. “It was pretty hot stuff, but we didn’t know what it was.”

He didn’t learn what the top-secret project was until after the United States dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan, which, along with a second bomb dropped on Nagasaki, helped end World War II more quickly.

“There was a celebration. They gave everyone (who worked on the project at his lab) a pin,” he said.

Later on, Rowland married his wife Jo-Anne and they had son Brad and daughter Merrill, who is named for her father.

Wolfe was a member of the first class of inductees into the U.S. Gymnastics Hall of Fame, and he also is a member of the U.S. Olympics Hall of Fame, his son said.

His father’s Olympic gold medal is tucked away in a bank safety deposit box, but Brad Wolfe is considering allowing the U.S. Olympics Hall of Fame to borrow it for display.

“Flip” Wolfe always has his sense of humor, no matter how bad he feels, Brad Wolfe said, and he never boasts of his accomplishments.

“He was never one to blow his own horn,” Brad said. “I’ve said to him, ‘Dad, you’ve accomplished something very few people have accomplished.

“It all started because he was puny.”