He was undefeated in Olympic competition, winning every event
he entered, 10 in all, more than Greg Louganis and Johnny
Weissmuller combined. A member of both the U.S. Track and Field
and the U.S. Olympic halls of fame, he overcame the kind of
childhood obstacles hurdled by Wilma Rudolph, collected medals
with the frequency of Carl Lewis and maintained the enduring
excellence of Al Oerter. So why doesn't everyone know about Ray
This is an article from the Sept. 18, 2000 issue
There are reasons for his odd combination of supremacy and
obscurity. Ewry's Olympic feats occurred at the turn of the
century, during the infancy of the modern Games. Two of his gold
medals were in an "unofficial" Olympics, in 1906, and he competed
in events that have long since been eliminated from the Olympic
program. But Ewry's specialties--the standing jumps--hardly belong
in the same category as other vanished Olympic oddities, such as
croquet and tug-of-war.
Ewry's childhood, in Lafayette, Ind., did not presage athletic
glory. As a boy he contracted infantile paralysis and was
confined to a wheelchair. Doctors feared that young Ray would
never walk again and encouraged him to try calisthenics in the
dim hope that it would strengthen his legs. Ewry not only walked
but also turned his weakness into his most remarkable asset. He
added jumping to his daily regimen, practicing in his backyard.
As a freshman at Purdue in 1891, the 6'3" Ewry won his first
victory, at a school field day. The event was the high kick, a
quirky challenge in which competitors raised one foot as high as
possible while keeping the other planted on the ground. By the
time Ewry was a senior, he was captain of the track team. That
year he led Purdue to the state championship, winning three
individual titles--the standing broad jump, and the standing and
running high jumps.
After earning undergraduate and graduate degrees in mechanical
engineering, Ewry moved to the New York City area, where he would
work as an engineer for four decades. He also continued his
Amateur Athletic Union career during which he would win 28
national and metropolitan titles.
In 1900 Ewry's jumping prowess took him to Paris, where the
second modern Olympics were staged as a sideshow to the
International Exposition. The event was so ill-planned that many
of the athletes had no idea they were taking part in the
Olympics. But Ewry captured the fancy of his French hosts by
earning three gold medals. He won the standing broad jump and the
standing triple jump (then known as the "hop, step and jump"),
and he stunned spectators with his standing high-jump effort of
5'5". That was four inches higher than any rival's jump and would
have won a silver medal in the traditional high jump (with a
running start) four years earlier. Ewry repeated his triple feat
at the 1904 Olympics in St. Louis, earning himself a handful of
mixed-blessing nicknames, such as the Human Frog and the Rubber
Man. Myths about him arose, including one that he could jump and
touch a standard-height ceiling--with his foot.
The standing triple jump was dropped from the next Olympics, so
Ewry was limited to two events at the so-called Intercalated
Games in Athens in 1906, scheduled as a "mid-Olympic" competition
to keep the public's interest in the still-new Games, and he won
them both. He repeated as a double gold medalist in the London
Olympics in 1908. He had won four consecutive golds in each of
two events--and he had his sights set on 1912. "Everything was
progressing in fine shape," he later wrote, "when I received a
note from Old Dame Nature in the shape of a rheumatic twinge."
Ewry's best friend and former Olympic teammate, Martin Sheridan,
told the 38-year-old, "Ray, you're getting to be an old man. You
ought to quit."
"So I did," Ewry recalled. "That's all."
Almost as if on cue, the standing jumps were discontinued after
1912, meaning Ewry still held three Olympic records on the day he
died, at age 63, in 1937. By then his legend had faded. In fact,
a year earlier another U.S. standout, Jesse Owens, had earned
immortality by collecting a handful of gold medals at the Berlin
Games. Of course, he won only four.