Ray Ewry wasn't even supposed to walk

Updated: August 19, 2004, 12:31 PM ET
By Eric Adelson | ESPN The Magazine

ATHENS -- Who is the greatest U.S. Olympian ever? Carl Lewis? Eric Heiden? Florence Griffith-Joyner? Al Oerter? Mark Spitz?

Who has the greatest Olympic story ever? The Miracle on Ice team? Cassius Clay? Cathy Freeman?

All these names come so quickly to mind. Looking backward through history, the names made the Olympics as much as the Olympics made the names. The Olympics are so much about finding that next name, that next dominant athlete with the compelling story. Sometimes, rarely, the two are one. Jim Thorpe. Jesse Owens. And when those two elements come together, an athlete becomes bigger than the Olympics, bigger than sports. An athlete becomes a name.

With one exception.

There is one American athlete who has won more gold medals than any other. And this man's story has gotten lost in time.

This is a story about ancient ground here in Greece, and sacred ground back in Indiana, and what one man did to bring the two together. This is the story of a man with a disease we don't fear and an Olympic event we don't remember. This is the story of what happened the last time the Games came to Athens, 98 years ago, in 1906. This is the story of the winningest Olympian ever, and the greatest American hero you've never heard of.

Raymond Clarence Ewry (YOO-re) was born in Lafayette, Ind., in 1873. He was orphaned at the age of 5, and he seemed destined to spend his entire life in the tiny town. Before he was old enough to fully understand, a doctor told Ewry he would never walk again. Ray had polio. He was bound to a wheelchair. There was no cure. He was 7 years old.

One doctor suggested leg exercises. A century later, the workout would be known as plyometrics, but back then it was a last resort. So Ray tried. He dreamed of getting out of that chair, of taking just one step. The boy wanted only to walk.

There was Ray, doing his exercises from the moment he woke up in the morning until the moment he fell asleep at night. There was Ray on a path by the Wabash and Erie canal, near his home. There was Ray, pushing himself out of his chair and onto the ground, pushing the Earth away, teaching himself to stand. There was Ray, balancing himself on his two feet. There was Ray, leaving the ground, jumping. Imagine the look on the boy's face as he jumped for the first time. Ray jumped over and over again. He jumped simply because he could. He jumped not for glory or gold, but to keep the wheelchair away.

The crippled boy had become the 6-foot-3 college kid with legs of steel. (The great American sprinter Wilma Rudolph also would later overcome polio to become the first U.S. woman to win three gold medals in a single Olympics at the 1960 Summer Games in Rome.)

Ray enrolled at Purdue in 1890 and led the school to its first-ever track title. He broke world records in standing high jump, standing long jump and standing triple jump (also known as the 'hop, step and jump'). He moved to New Jersey in '99 and joined the New York Athletic Club, whose members had watched the inaugural Athens Games in 1896 with deep interest. Back then the Olympics were no more than a fledgling sideshow. The NYAC wanted the Games to succeed. In '00, they would send their best to Paris. They would send Ray.

On July 16, 1900, Ewry entered the standing high jump competition. He took one step and bounced 5 feet, 5 inches. That's 65 inches, with no run-up. The Parisians gaped. Then, in the standing long jump, Ewry flew 10 feet, 10 inches. More gasps and claps and cheers. And in the standing triple jump, Ray covered 34 feet, 8½ inches. The American was a spectacle. He could leap feet backward from a standing start, but that was not an Olympic sport. Neither was kicking the ceiling, which Ray could also do somehow. No matter to the French. By the end of the fortnight, they had named Ewry "The Human Frog."

Ray doubled his gold medal count from three to six by winning the same three events again in St. Louis in 1904. He set a world record in the standing long jump.

Two years later he came here, to Athens. Greece was celebrating the 10th anniversary of the modern Games with a full list of events. So although 1906 was not an Olympic year, the medals counted. Ewry won two more. (He would have won three, but the hop, step and jump was eliminated after '04.) By this time, Ray was waving off all preliminary heats and jumping only once, in the final. He only needed one attempt to win. The boy with polio had become the unbeatable Olympic champion.

Ray won two more golds in London in '08, and would have won more in '12 if not for severe pain from what he called "a note from Old Dame Nature in the shape of a rheumatic twinge," he wrote in the Purdue Alumnus in 1920. Ray retired with 10 golds. He won four straight championships in each of two events -- a mark that might never fall. No other Olympian in history has won as many gold medals without losing a single competition. Even Carl Lewis silvered once. But not Ray Ewry.

What did Ray get for his athletic genius? Not a single endorsement. There were no talk shows or Wheaties boxes waiting for him back home. Today, a 65-inch vertical might make Ewry a national phenomenon. But back then, Ray quietly went home and used his engineering expertise -- he had two degrees in the field -- to help the New York Board of Water Supply build the dams and reservoirs that bring city dwellers drinking water still today. The only things Ray kept from all his years of dominance were his nicknames (which eventually included "The Greatest Jumper on Earth" and "Rubber Man"), 10 gold medals, and a small collection of dirt. See, Ray figured he might never make it back to Greece. So, he leaned over after his final victory and scooped up some Athens soil.

And when he was invited to the opening ceremonies for Purdue's brand new Ross-Ade football stadium, Ray sprinkled the Athens dirt onto the gridiron sod. Bob Griese, Jim Everett and Drew Brees would trample all over that international turf on their way to fame and fortune Ray Ewry never knew.

The Games have returned now to Athens, and there is probably not a single American Olympian who has heard of Ray Ewry. Today the world is obsessed more with the speed of swimmers and sprinters than it ever was with jumping. None of Ewry's events are still contested today, so there will never be a Michael Phelps to Ray's Mark Spitz.

Nearly a century after the last Athens Games, the Olympics have become a place to discover someone like Ray Ewry. The greatest athletic entertainers might be on baseball fields in America or soccer fields in Europe, but the greatest athletic stories are here. Millions around the world will tune in to this Olympics in the hopes of seeing one athlete complete an unforgettable life story with an unforgettable performance. But those millions will be lucky to see someone as unforgettable as the forgotten Ray Ewry -- the greatest jumper in Olympic history who wasn't supposed to take a single step.

Eric Adelson is a senior writer at ESPN The Magazine. E-mail him at eric.adelson@espn3.com. Special thanks to George Milkov of ESPN The Magazine and Kathleen Offer of Purdue University for their contributions to the research of this story.

Eric Adelson | email

ESPN The Magazine
Eric Adelson was a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.