Never heard of Ray Ewry? We should probably rectify that situation, because he was the gold standard (pardon the pun) for Olympic excellence for decades. The Indiana native was America’s first truly dominant Olympic athlete.
Ewry won eight gold medals in the Olympic games, all of them in individual events. He held that record 100 years and 23 days until it was broken by Michael Phelps in 2008 during the Beijing Olympics.
Ewry was born in West Lafayette, Indiana in 1873 and was orphaned at the age of five. He contracted polio when he was seven, which forced him to use a wheelchair. It was feared that he would wind up paralyzed from the disease, but a doctor suggested he perform leg exercises on his own with the simple goal of being able to walk again. Thanks to his determination, Ewry was able to overcome the illness and its effects. He enrolled at Purdue in 1890 (this Indiana alum will forgive him that transgression) and captained the track and field team while also playing football. Then he became an international track and field star at the 1900 Summer Olympics in Paris.
At the Paris Games, a 27-year-old Ewry took home gold medals in the standing long jump, standing high jump and standing triple jump. A feat he then repeated at the 1904 Summer Games in St. Louis. He led American sweeps in all three events and set a standing long jump world record with a leap of 3.47 meters.
By the time the 1908 Summer Olympics rolled around, the standing triple jump had been eliminated as a sport. Still, Ewry dominated his other two events in London, winning gold in both the standing long jump and standing high jump. His mark of winning three gold medals in one event was equaled but not surpassed until Al Oerter won his fourth discus gold 60 years later.
Ewry was also the only athlete to win three gold medals in two events at an Olympics until Michael Phelps duplicated the feat. Phelps won his third golds in the 200-meter individual medley and the 100-meter butterfly in 2012 to equal the feat 104 years and 11 days later in the same city Ewry set the mark, London.
Ewry was so dominant that his world record standing long jump (3.47 meters or 11 feet, 5 inches) that he unleashed in 1904, was still the standard when the event was discontinued in the 1930s.
But there is more to Ewry’s story. In 1906 on the 10th anniversary of the first modern Olympics in Athens, a competition was held with a full range of events. Ewry won gold in the standing long jump and standing high jump in what were deemed the “Intercalated Games.” For years those were considered Olympic medals as well. So he essentially had 10 Olympic gold medals and, since he retired after the 1908 Olympics, Ewry never lost an Olympic-level competition.
During his Olympic career Ewry also held regular jobs, as most athletes of his era had to do. He put his two engineering degrees to work and worked building vessels for the U.S. Navy at the Crescent ship yards in New Jersey. He then moved to continue his work at the New York Navy Yards.
After his final Olympics, Ewry went back to the United States and, among other jobs, worked with the New York Board of Water Supply to build a system that still brings New York City its drinking water. He was later an instructor at Platt Institute in Brooklyn.
Towards the end of his life, debilitating hip and leg pain made Ewry lame. An ironic twist for a man who bravely overcame polio to become an incredible athlete.
Ewry’s dominance happened in another era for sports, but that doesn’t make them any less impressive. He passed away on September 29, 1937 at the age of 63, but his legacy has lived on.