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The debate over who is the greatest summer Olympian in U.S. history usually sticks to a list of familiar names: Phelps, Spitz, Thorpe, Carl Lewis, Jesse Owens, perhaps Jackie Joyner-Kersee. But then there's Ray Ewry. That's right, Ray Ewry. NPR's Mike Pesca has the remarkable story of this all but forgotten Olympic great.
MIKE PESCA, BYLINE: Ray Ewry won his 10th gold medal in 10 tries by leaping, bounding and hopping to such great heights and lengths that spectators were awed, but also dumbfounded that a human being could perform such feats. In fact, the French dubbed him l'homme grenouille, the human frog. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: Ewry's nickname correctly translates to "Frog Man."] But before Ray Ewry ever cleared that bar in Paris in 1900 - and then again at three subsequent games - he accomplished something truly remarkable: He learned to walk again.
Ewry contracted polio as an 8-year-old in 1881. Thomas Carson, Ewry's grandson and biographer, says the disease overwhelmed the doctors of Lafayette, Indiana.
THOMAS CARSON: He was stabbed numerous times around the knees with long, pointed needles to get some kind of nerve response. And of course, when you have ascending paralysis, it just deadens the nerves from the ankles up to the hip.
PESCA: The thought was because of the polio, Ray Ewry would be paralyzed. The truth is but for the polio, Ewry might not have been an Olympian. Ewry's therapist put her patient through a series of exercises to strengthen his legs. His 19th-century rehabilitation was very much like what today is known as plyometric training. In 1889, Ray was a high school senior still using crutches. The following year, he was an engineering student at Purdue University who was setting records in the standing long jump and high jump, events that have fallen away from the world of track and field. Ewry soon made his way east, where he became a member of the New York Athletic Club.
TOM QUINN: (Reading) He was an appealing fellow who was generous with his skills.
PESCA: New York Athletic Club historian Tom Quinn there, reading from a contemporaneous description of Ewry.
QUINN: (Reading) He was well thought of but also viewed as a very, very special person - I'd say, as our best.
PESCA: Ewry was so dominant at the standing long jump, high jump and triple jump that he was actually kind of boring, says Tom Carson.
CARSON: After everybody had done their very best, Ray would walk out and beat it by half a foot or more - and walk away with a gold medal.
PESCA: Just how impressive were Ray's records? To check, I contacted Nick Winkelman of Athletes' Performance, who takes the nation's top college football players and trains them for the NFL Combine. I asked Winkelman about Ewry's Olympic best-standing long jump of 11 feet, 4 and seven-eighths of an inch.
NICK WINKELMAN: Last year, we had Julio Jones just clear 11 feet, and that would be absolutely jaw-dropping. So to see anybody get into the high 10s - let alone break 11 feet - is absolutely phenomenal.
PESCA: No NFL player has ever reached a vertical leap of 4 feet. Ewry jumped well over 5.
WINKELMAN: I can't even fathom thinking of somebody getting their hips, their center of mass, that high.
PESCA: It's easy to imagine today, the letters E-W-R-Y stitched on the back of an NFL jersey. During the London Olympics in two months, you might hear Ewry's name come up ahead of the swimming events. Michael Phelps hopes to win his 10th individual gold medal, tying Ray Ewry. There's a wrinkle there, though. Two of Ewry's golds were won in Athens in 1906, which the IOC doesn't officially recognize even though most historians do. Also hindering Ewry's legacy is the fact that his events no longer exist. In fact, neither do his medals. They were stolen from the New York Athletic Club and have never surfaced. But he's still there in the Olympic record books - just look at, or near, the top.
Mike Pesca, NPR News, New York.
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