Largely forgotten despite his incredible tally of gold medals, Ray Ewry began one of the greatest Olympic careers in history at the 1900 Paris Games.
The American jumper excelled in three events and won 10 individual Olympic titles (or eight titles, depending on whose version of history you rely upon) around the turn of the century. All three of those events — the standing high jump, the standing long jump and the standing triple jump — have since been dropped from the games.
Unlike the more commonly known jumping events, Ewry competed without a run-up. Standing motionless, athletes were measured on how high or far they could go from a flat-footed, stationary position.
And Ewry was the best there was, despite spending part of his childhood in Indiana in a wheelchair with polio.
“Ewry was visible proof of (Pierre) de Coubertin’s philosophy that sport and health went hand in hand,” Olympic historian David Miller wrote in the 2012 edition of the official history of the games. “His medical history makes his performances all the more exceptional: no run-up, stationary feet flat on the ground, everything dependent on the spring of coiled muscles.”
Ewry won the first three of his titles in 1900 all on the same day, making him the only track athlete in history to win three Olympic events in a single day.
He was dubbed “The Human Frog” for his exploits.
Ewry entered 10 events at four Olympics (or eight events at three Olympics) and won every time. He defended all three of his titles in St. Louis four years after the Paris Games but had to settle for only two each at the 1906 and 1908 Games, when the standing triple jump was eliminated from the program.
But Ewry’s historic record was diminished when the International Olympic Committee decided to officially minimize the standing of the 1906 Athens Games, which were sandwiched between St. Louis in 1904 and London in 1908.
Originally called the “Athens International Olympic Games” and sanctioned by the IOC, they are now known as the Intercalated (or Intermediary) Games of 1906. They were ruled unofficial in 1949, according to Olympic historian David Wallechinsky.
The 1906 Games had also previously been discounted by de Coubertin, a French baron and the father of the Modern Olympics, even though he had reluctantly approved them at the time.
“Ray was very, very concerned and upset that they didn’t honor the effort and the loyalty to the cause to further the movement,” Ewry’s grandson and biographer, Thomas Carson, told The Associated Press in a telephone interview.
No athlete in Olympic history had won more individual titles until American swimmer Michael Phelps came along, bettering Ewry’s mark a century later at the 2008 Beijing Games.
“It was like an arrow to the heart because for 106 years this guy is walking around with the world record,” said Carson, who coincidentally went to the same high school as Phelps in Towson, Maryland. “Individual medals, that’s the key right there.”
Ewry wanted to add to his Olympic haul at the 1912 Stockholm Games, the last ones to feature the standing jumps, but age and the effects of his childhood illness started to slow him down. He died in 1937.
“His polio wasn’t too bad, but his older age and the arthritis started coming in and the damage started to affect him,” Carson said. “Ray was very hurt that he couldn’t reach 5-foot high.”
In Paris, Ewry set a world record with a leap of 5 feet, 5 inches in the standing high jump — a height that would have earned him a silver medal in the regular high jump four years earlier at the inaugural 1896 Athens Olympics.
Carson has dedicated much of his life to researching his grandfather and his accomplishments. He found a stack of leather-bound journals written by Ewry that his mother had stored away, but they have since been stolen.
His biggest ambition now is trying to get all 10 of his grandfather’s Olympic titles to count, not just the eight that the IOC currently recognizes.
“That is my goal before I die,” Carson said, “to get those medals accredited to not only Ray, but to all those Olympians from every country whose families deserve the pride and recognition of their medals.”
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