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Profiles in Badassery: Ray Ewry

A turn of the century badass
A turn of the century badass

We're only two years away from the next Summer Olympics, where current Purdue athlete David Boudia and former Purdue javelin standout Kara Patterson are expected to compete. Boudia is one of the favorites to medal in diving, while Patterson is hoping to build off of her experience for a higher finish. Both competed in the 2008 games in Beijing, and they have done Purdue proud in several international competitions since.

What people may not realize is that Purdue is the home of one of the first great Olympians. For that, we must go back to the turn of the last century in a handful of events that are no longer Olympic sports. Though the events don't exist anymore, Ray Ewry was the unquestioned master of his domain, thus making him an early 20th century badass.

Ewry's background:

Ewry was born October 14, 1873, roughly four years after the founding of Purdue University. This makes him one of the earliest possible candidates for a Profile in Badassery. He was a local kid, from Lafayette where he spent most of his life. While Lafayette is a nice town to live in, Ray did not have it easy. At the age of 5 he was orphaned. As if that wasn't enough, at age 7 he contracted polio.

His doctors feared that he would become permanently paralyzed, but polio can't slow down true badasses. Just look at FDR. The man ran the country for 12 years through its darkest periods all from a wheelchair. Ewry devised his own plan of exercises to overcome his paralysis, and this would help him later in life. He was one of the earliest followers of plyometrics. Back then, it was considered a last resort, and Ray only dreamed of walking. He has one doctor to thank, as it was pretty much a final suggestion after many others told him he would never walk again.

So Ewry worked. He kept his legs strong and worked on jumping. It wasn't because he wanted to be an athlete. He jumped because it would keep him out of the wheelchair. As it turned out, he became pretty good at it. He grew to be 6'3" and all that hard work gave him tons of lower body strength.

Ray decided to stay local and attend Purdue in 1890. He became a member of Sigma Nu fraternity and earned a graduate degree in engineering. He was also an early standout in track and field, which was one of the few sports offered at Purdue at the time. Purdue won its first track title behind him. He was such a standout that he was invited to join the exclusive New York Athletic Club after graduation. He might have been invited to the first Olympics in 1896, but the NYAC was unsure about the event or if it would succeed.

Olympic career

We're all familiar with many of the current track and field events. The high jump, long jump, and triple jump still exist in their modern forms. Though they are not as glamorized as Usain Bolt blowing everyone away in the 100 meter dash, they are long standing events that have seen many people find Olympic glory. Ewry was an expert in the precursor to these three jumps. Specifically, he was unsurpassed in the standing long jump, the standing high jump, and the standing triple jump.

Few people in the world could compete with Ewry at these events. They were contested in the exact same manner as their modern counterparts, but they only lacked the standard run up. Each even was done from a standing position.

The NYAC wanted to send its best to the next Olympics, so it sent Ray. Ewry's first Olympics were the 1900 games held in Paris. To prove exactly how much of a badass he was, he won all three standing jump events.

In the same day.

This was before most places had artificial lighting, so he had hours at best between events contested during the heat of the day. Still, no one could compete with him. The 1900 Paris Games were only the second summer Olympics, yet Ewry was already a three time gold medalist. In the standing high jump he leapt five feet, five inches. In the standing long jump he jumped 10 feet 10 inches. In the triple jump he blew everyone away with a leap of 34 feet, 8 ½ inches. The Parisians called him the Human Frog.

Four years later, at the 1904 games held in nearby St. Louis, Ewry was once again a three-time Olympic gold medalist in all three events. The history of these games is sketchy at best. Like the 1900 games in Paris, the Games were mostly a sideshow to the World's Fair as opposed to the main event. In fact, the St. Louis Games were so poorly organized that it very nearly killed the Olympic movement. Less than half the events had competitors from outside the U.S. The Russo-Japanese War kept a lot of the best athletes away, especially since air travel hadn't really been invented yet.

In other disgusting oddities from this Olympics the organizers of the World's Fair held what they called Anthropology Days. Basically, they took men from indigenous tribes around the world that were part of the Department of Ethnology exhibits and made them compete against white men to see how they compared athletically.

I will now publicly apologize for my race.

The sideshow continued, as American gymnast George Eyser won six medals despite having a wooden leg, and the marathon was a wild event that saw a winner nearly die from heat exhaustion and poisoning, as well as the first two black Africans to ever compete in the Olympics.

Despite the sideshow, Ewry dominated his events again to become the world's first six time gold medalist. This was the final year that the standing triple jump was contested, but he would continue to dominate the other two jumps for some time. In 1906, the Olympic committee held what is now called the Intercalated Games. While these are not considered an official Olympics by the IOC, most historians consider these games, held in Athens, to be official. Ewry won two more golds at this event, both in the standing high jump and standing long jump.

Showing that he was indeed a badass he flaunted his superiority. From the 1906 games on Ray didn't even compete in the preliminary events. He won his final four gold medals on a single leap each time. He was just that damn good.

Two years later he was still the best in the world at the 1908 London Olympics. He won two more gold medals in the standing long jump and standing high jump to bring his total to an astounding 10 gold medals. This was the highest number of gold medals anyone has ever won until some guy named Michael Phelps passed him in 2008. Even if you don't count his two medals from the 1906 Games, Ewry is still the third most successful Olympic athlete of all time. All standing events haven't been contested in the Olympics since 1912, but that is still pretty badass.

Ewry was so dominant in these events that when international competition ceased altogether in the 1930s he was still the world record holder in the standing long jump at 11 feet 5 inches. He wanted to compete in the 1912 games but severe pain prevented him from going. All told, he is the only person to ever go undefeated in 10 Olympic events.

Post Olympic Career

There were no Wheaties boxes for Ewry to be on. He didn't even have Subway commercials to be in back then. An athlete had to work to make a living once his competitive days were done. He used his engineering degree to work for the New York Board of Water Supply to build dams and reservoirs to supply New York City with water. That's right, he was an early athletic and engineering badass for Purdue. Is there any doubt that if NASA had been around then, he might have beaten Neil Armstrong to the Moon (possibly by jumping)?

When he won his final gold medal in Athens he scooped up some of the soil to take home with him as a souvenir. Later on, When Ross-Ade Stadium opened, he was invited back to Purdue. In something I did not know until researching this article, he sprinkled that soil into the turf at the new stadium. Perhaps that is the reason we are now known as the Cradle of Quarterbacks, and why Drew Brees was able to leap over three Notre Dame defenders for a two point conversion in 1999. They have had the right soil to grow on, blessed from some of the earliest athletic competitions in the history of mankind.

Ray passed away on September 29, 1939, thus making next week the 69th anniversary of his death. In 1983 he was among the first class of Olympians to be inducted into the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame.

Truly, Ewry is worthy of his Profile in Badassery. Here was a man that was never even supposed to walk, yet over 100 years after he competed in his final Olympics he is still considered one of the greatest Olympians ever. His work off the field in engineering also still supplies one of the largest cities in the world with drinking water. I am proud that he is associated with Purdue University, and welcome him into the elite fraternity that comes from a Profile in Badassery.