1900. The Games of the II Olympiad are underway as part of the 1900 World’s Fair in Paris. The Track and Field events are being conducted in the stadium of the Racing Club de France Football. It is not the fancy stadium or field we would come to expect of Olympic Games decades hence – Racing Club plays in the 5th tier of French national soccer (football). But, it is conveniently located close to the fairgrounds. Not far away, just under a mile, and across the historic River Seine, the 1,000-foot-tall Eiffel Tower – built as an awe-inspiring eye-catching fascination for the 1889 Fair – is in view.(1)
June 16. Ray stands beside the bar as required for this event: the standing high jump. No running approach or adjustment of feet position is permitted. He takes a moment to gaze at its World Record height; so prodigious a height that, if cleared, it would have sufficed to earn a medal in the regular running high jump in the previous Athens Olympics. He begins his unique routine, breathing slowly and deeply, focusing his attention, gradually folding his lanky legs into a deep squat, stretching his powerful quad, calf, and glute muscles. As his squat deepens, he begins to swing his arms, farther and farther, back and forth. Then – suddenly! – he explodes almost straight up.
Would it be Ironic that a man who came to world prominence labeled as “The Human Frog” would have the most life-altering circumstance of his entire life crash upon him during a silly race involving frogs? Because, after Ray Ewry’s performances in the II Olympic Games – winning three Olympic Championships in all three standing jumping events in a single day – that’s what the French media and fans called him: La grenouille humaine. And the name stuck.
I have found that a firm definition of the word Ironic is difficult to pin down, although many English speakers use the word often. As Merriam-Webster states: “The word irony has come to be applied to events that are merely curious or coincidental …” Best fit might be when a word’s, or a phrase’s usage – or a real-life outcome – is far different than what one would expect. Or as Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said (of something completely different): “I know it when I see it.”
Ray Ewry was that man of world prominence.
He was born in October, 1873, in Lafayette, Indiana. That’s the seat of Tippecanoe County, lying along the Wabash River, and contains its companion waterway: the Wabash Canal. The river, the canal, and even the county fair and fairgrounds provided entertainment for young Ray. But his life wasn’t even close to easy.
Much of America and Europe went through a canal building craze in the early 19th century. These ambitious waterway constructions facilitated the transportation of goods and product. In America grain went from the breadbaskets of the heartland to oceanic ports and thence to other American cities and to the world. Canals also facilitated the flow of all sorts of necessities to the heartland: forged machinery, stoves, clothing, boots, even sawn lumber and fine European clothing and furniture. (One tip-off regarding canal building and its significance is the number of inland US cities with the suffix “-port” in their name, such as Logansport, Gasport, Middleport, Brockport, etc. There are at least 4 Lockports, of course all near canal locks: one each in Illinois, Indiana, Louisiana, and New York states).
Thousands of miles of canals were constructed. The Erie Canal is probably the most famous and enduring. It opened in 1825 and traversed northern New York state for some 360-plus miles, connecting the four Great Lakes above Niagara Falls to the Atlantic Ocean … and thus helped make many cities along those Great Lakes become commercial and transportation hubs (Chicago, Milwaukee, Detroit, Toledo, Cleveland, etc.), and also helped make New York City into the gigantic hub of commercial trade. That’s a status it enjoys to this day.
Of the significant but lesser-known canals we consider the longest North American canal at nearly 500 miles: the Wabash & Erie Canal. This canal network connected Toledo’s Maumee Bay, at the western end of Lake Erie to Evansville, Indiana, on the right bank of the mighty Ohio River. From there transportation to and from the Mississippi and to the Gulf of Mexico was possible.
With construction beginning near Toledo in 1832, and finally reaching Evansville in 1853, the canal’s long-term future (as for many other canals) was doomed before it was completed, even though it had been in use since the first few miles of the big ditch were dug. The steam powered “Iron Horse” was the next transportation rage. Fueled with coal and using rapidly developing steel technology for engines, wheels and rails, the railroad would almost immediately surpass and suppress the potential of canals for convenient transportation.
1904 Saint Louis. The Games of the III Olympiad are underway, again as part of a World’s Fair. The Track & Field events are occurring on the newly constructed Athletic Field of Washington University (now known as Francis Olympic Field). Again, the field lacks much of the glamour and size we’d grow to expect in future decades. The University is in the process of moving from downtown Saint Louis to just across the city limits. Its many buildings and grounds are still works-in-progress. Just a few yards away from the Athletic Field, the World’s Fair is using the University’s new Admin Building as headquarters for its massive spread of 1,270 acres of exhibitions – the largest Fair until Shanghai over a century later, in 2010. And just a bit further away the Ferris Observation Wheel, at 264 feet tall with a capacity of 2,160 passengers is clearly visible.
August 29. Ray stands at one end of the Long Jump pit. His feet are on the ground; this is a standing jumping event. He’d need one of his better jumps to secure 1st place and a gold medal (the 1904 Olympics were the first with gold, silver and bronze medals). He gazes out to a spot well over 3 meters away, to world and Olympic record distance. Fellow American Charles King has already broken Ray’s Olympic record at 3.21 meters. Ray quiets his pensive, disciplined mind and begins his now well-known routine. When he leaps, his explosiveness surprises no one. When he lands – properly not falling backward – the crowd roars its appreciation. Ray has set a new World and Olympic Record at 3.47 meters (11 feet, 4.6 inches) – and won himself another Olympic championship.
Unlike Paris, the Olympic events are spread out over month; yet like Paris, most of the athletic (track and field) Olympic competitions were crammed into just a few days. In Paris, all of Ray’s events were held on a single day; in Saint Louis his events spread out a bit. Yet, Ray won three golds again, sweeping the standing jumping events, between August 29 and September 3. Although he set a record in the Long Jump, his other numbers were off from his personal best – a trend he had begun to notice in his training.
Not much detail is known of Ray Ewry’s early life in Lafayette, except that it was profoundly difficult. I found little. He had one sibling, a sister, Mabel, a few years younger. His father, George, was prone to drink. His mother, Lizzie, died of “consumption” (now known as tuberculosis) when he was only 5-½ years old, and his sister was still a toddler. Sodden with alcohol and sorrow, Ray’s father was unable to deal with the duties of sole parent, household management, and employment – so he turned to his friends and neighbors, the Elisha family, to raise his children. Mary Elisha became Ray’s and Mabel’s mother. Mr. George Ewry then vanished forever. Ray was an orphan.
Little was known about diseases – including hygiene and sanitation – even late into the 19th century. And little could be done for what was known. Thanks to Hooke and van Leeuwenhoek, the prolific lives of bacteria were certainly known, yet Fleming’s discovery of penicillin was decades away, and widespread use of it even further. Viruses were unknown, although they were proved to exist in the 1890s; yet they were so small they were little understood until well into the 20th century.
In Lafayette Indiana, like many other places, children frequently played in, and splashed about in, fetid waters. Ray Ewry often did such when he was not off playing at the county fairgrounds. He’d jump and swim in the Wabash Canal or River. All the kids did. No one really thought much of it.
2021. It’s still the time of coronavirus, or Covid-19, although – hopefully – the end is nigh. Or at least major relief. Tokyo will host the Olympics with essentially zero spectators. Of the countless types of viruses, there are a tiny fraction that can have horrible effects on humans. But a tiny fraction of a very large number is still a large number. Among this vile fraction are a set of three that can cause conditions that terrify anyone: the polio viruses.
These are three similar but distinctly different polio viruses. Call them variations on a gene. All are highly contagious and are different enough that vaccines must contain three different antigen triggers. Thankfully two types are considered to be fully eradicated from the earth, and the other is found only in remote places – mostly Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Much as with Covid-19, the vast majority of people who got infected with a polio virus suffered very mild-to-no symptoms; some medical sites say 95-99%. Of those with symptoms, most might have felt like they had a mild cold, or flu, and feel achy for a few days, or maybe a week. Perhaps a slight fever. And then it was gone. [Also, like Covid-19, these asymptomatic infections can spread the virus]. What history and imagination conjures up for us is the one-in-two hundred or so who suffered some sort of paralysis. The onset of paralysis was usually some time – several days, or even a week, or more – after the body had seemingly “beaten” the virus. Overwhelmingly such paralysis victims were children: from very young to adolescents.
The odd adult case has a most memorable example. Franklin Roosevelt, the 32nd President of the US, was stricken with polio paralysis at age 39 – the year after he had unsuccessfully stood for Vice-President as the Democratic Party nominee. About 75% of such polio paralysis victims eventually get most, even all, capability back in their stricken limbs and muscles. Roosevelt was among the minority who did not.
Sadly, for those who do recover, there is a high incidence of PPS – Post Polio Syndrome. After many years, even after decades, the previously afflicted muscles begin to slowly weaken, and may eventually fail altogether. The biological mechanism is not understood, as the virus itself is long gone from the body, and – now that Polio is nearly totally eradicated thanks to diligent vaxxing of all children – the phenomenon may never be understood. Perhaps the aging body just “remembers” the condition and reverts back to it.
There are other infectious diseases that can have long-lasting effects, long after the infection is beaten. One is caused by the genus of streptococcus bacteria. Bacteria are much larger than viruses, but just as devious. They are frequently “opportunistic”: the body generally fights them off well, but they still strike hard when the body is run down, perhaps fighting another infection (often viral), or there is a large cut or scrape to the skin, as often happens to young boys.
Strep bacteria have distinct proteins on their cell coating which the human body’s immune system identifies as antigens: something to attack and kill. But sometimes the body is too run-down to fight the bacteria off quickly, or perhaps, after the age of Fleming, the use of antibiotics is delayed. When strep hangs around the body for a while, the immune system gets over-programmed to attack the marked bacteria’s protein in its cell coating. Unfortunately, that protein is very similar to other proteins that the body needs, such as in the muscles of the heart. And tissue in the joints. The result is Rheumatic Fever. It is usually a life-long struggle. It’s an auto-immune disorder: the body attacks itself.
It was probably not uncommon to suffer such an infection along with a viral infection … like polio.
1906, Athens. The International Olympic Committee has decided to hold another Olympic Games competition to commemorate the 10th Anniversary of the first modern era Olympics, also held in Athens. Dubbed the “Second International Olympic Games of Athens”, they were the first clear forerunner to the much spot-lighted and hyped-up Olympics we know today. Well planned, highly promoted, and separate from a World’s Fair. The track and field events are held near the center of ancient Athens, in the Panathenaic Stadium, a magnificent edifice, fully worthy of the Olympics, which remains today the only stadium built entirely of marble. So magnificent, in fact, that it was used as a main venue for the 1896 and the 2004 Summer Olympic Games, as well as 1906.
Ray Ewry successfully defends his Olympic Championship in two events, the standing high jump and standing long jump. After the 1904 games, the standing triple jump was removed from the Olympic event list, for which Ray and his aging body were grateful. A tad discouraged by failing, yet again, to reach the height and distances of his previous performances, Ray nonetheless takes the time to scoop up some soil from the Athenian Olympic field and take it back to America.
June, 1881. School is out. Ray and his friends spend many muggy days playing in and around the old horse and wagon trails, taking time to splash about to cool off and “rinse off” in the fetid waters of the nearly abandoned Wabash Canal, part of the lengthy Erie & Wabash canal system. Catching a few frogs was not out of the question. Such “boy things” were commonly done, and no one thought much about it.
In June Ray caught a bad cold, perhaps a flu, with fever, chills and aches. His greatest fear was missing the Tippecanoe County Fair. To him the Fair’s highlight would be the Wheelbarrow Frog Race, to be held on July 4th.
Such “Frog” races were rather new to America, and especially Tippecanoe County. Apparently the highly entertaining, laugh-a-minute race idea came along with immigrants from Italy. The general idea is that each contestant gets a wheelbarrow (with low sides, or even no sides) and a frog. Place a frog on each wheelbarrow and run. Race distances were from a few hundred yards to a mile. You must complete the race with both a wheelbarrow and a frog upon the wheelbarrow to win.
Frogs are generally placid and stay put … until the slightest bump or turn occurs. Whereupon they jump off, and the unfortunate contestant must discard their wheelbarrow, stop running the race, and start running after their frog – hopefully retrieving it quickly. It was not uncommon, and considered within the rules, that contestants would bump each others wheelbarrows.
Fortunately for Ray, he recovered from his summer “bug” after a few days, and Mary Elisha allowed him to participate in this hilarious half-mile race. A bunch of young boys with small wheelbarrows and frog aboard (perhaps caught in the canal) took off from the starting line. Along the dirt race path each participant, of course, had his frog escape from time-to-time: that’s the whole idea and the source of the fun. Sometimes boys would catch each others’ escaped frogs (rules say one needs “a frog” to win, not “the frog you started with”). It was such fun for all of them and for the spectators!!
While chasing his escaped frog Ray began to feel tingling in his legs, like something he’d never felt before. Each time the frog escaped and he chased it down, the tingling experience was of short duration; yet, each time it was longer and more intense; and each time he ignored the funny tingling and began running the race again once he had his frog aboard his wheelbarrow. Coming down the home stretch Ray felt like he had a chance to win. The leader was just a few strides ahead. He ran and pushed as hard as he could. No sense risking losing his frog now. At full stride, the tingling returned. It turned to weakness. The faster he tried to run the weaker his legs became.
With what seemed like the whole county watching, Ray fell face first onto the race path. Had he stumbled? Horrified, Mary Elisha and others watched as he tried to get up and complete the race. But Ray couldn’t get up. His legs were completely paralyzed. At 7-½years old.
1908, London. The Games of the III Olympiad are again, and for the last time, held as part of a World’s Fair. The IOC had found, from experience in 1900 and 1904, that holding the games concurrent with such a grand Fair was not consistent with their vision for the future of the games… especially after the success of the 1906 games in Athens, which stood alone, and shone greatly.
The 1908 games were awarded to Italy, to be hosted in Rome. Unfortunately, the catastrophic 1906 eruption of Vesuvius had stressed the Italian government greatly, and they backed out as host of the games. London, which was to host another grand World’s Fair in 1908 (they had hosted what is arguably the first modern World’s Fair, in 1851) would now host the Olympics for the first time. [Rome finally hosted the Olympics in 1960, and the achievements of Wilma Rudolf there are not without remarkable parallels to Ray Ewry. London hosted again in 1948 and 2012].
At the astonishing age of nearly 35 (for a track and field athlete) Ray Ewry again defends his Olympic title in both the standing Long and High jumps, eking out height and distance just barely ahead of 2nd place. Quietly both proud of his achievement and also a tad disappointed in his slipping numbers, Ray takes home the last two of his ten Olympic first place awards. He is 10 for 10, winner of 10 events and undefeated in his Olympic career. Unheard of even today for a multiple gold medal winner.
1881-1891. Young Ray is distraught and discouraged by his condition: Paralyzed and bed-ridden. Mary Elilsha refuses to give up, reaching out to doctors and medical centers far and wide. There is full consensus: this is a life-long condition. Ray is forever paralyzed. But one doctor provides a glimmer of hope: perhaps some physical therapy could possibly help. It might well have just been a simple kind thing to say to a grieving “mom” like Mary. No sense heaping more grief on her, and Ray.
Mary runs with this advice. She finds a woman with a therapy background willing to spend time with Ray. Some research suggests her name was “Kate”, but the source is not firm. Nevertheless, she quickly moves past massage and assisted range-of motion stretches; she improvises with a peach basket, cutting two holes in the bottom and hanging it from a rope suspended over a pulley on the barn. Ray, wheelchair-bound, was lifted into the basket, its height adjusted with the pulley so that his feet barely touched the ground.
“Push Ray, Push!”
Day after day, month after month, year after year, Ray spent endless hours in the basket.
“Push Ray, Push!”
Slowly, incrementally, almost imperceptibly, the basket was lowered – first by Kate, then after she had left, by Mary Elisha. As it was lowered, although unknown to Ray for some time, he could support ever more weight, and this allowed him to flex his legs, exerting his muscles over greater range of motion.
By the time Ray reached his senior year in high school, he was still using crutches. But he could get himself into and out of the basket, raise and lower it himself, and he was growing in several ways. Ray was growing stronger – much stronger. He was also growing to be quite tall, now reaching 6 feet. And he was a superior student.
By the end of his senior year he was walking. After 11 years of paralysis. He enrolled at nearby Purdue University and started participating in the track club. He continued his own training and therapy, keeping careful notes, and training with the club.
In 1894 Ray completed a degree in engineering, and moved on to a few years as an Associate Engineering Professor at Purdue. His intellect and his physical prowess were catching a lot of attention. Since freshman year, Ray began winning track events, although at a club level and against mostly regional schools.
Later in the 1890s, Ray got the opportunity to move to the New York area, with a position designing and building ships for the US Navy. As a coincidental bonus, he was also offered a sponsored membership at the exalted New York Athletic Club, where he could continue training and competing. It was they who sponsored his participation in the Olympics. And provided a training site for him.
1910-11. Despite his age, Ewry had every intention of competing in the 1912 Olympic Games, in Stockholm. He continued his training and kept meticulous notes. Outwardly upbeat about his chances of qualifying to be on the US team, inwardly and in his notes his mood was a bit darker. His joints ached; not just his knees and not just when he trained. It was everywhere. And he could feel his leg muscles weakening, despite his disciplined workout and training regimen.
It’s hard to tell the difference between the effects of aging and the combined effects of Post-Polio Syndrome and Rheumatic Fever.
In 1911, aged 38, while training for the Olympic tryouts, he suffered a knee injury. These had occurred before, and he always recovered and worked through them. Not this time. He just could not get through it this time. After a few months of further training and therapy Ray decided it was time to retire from competition (although he remained active in the sport for decades, both coaching and judging at events).
After a very distinguished career with the Navy (as a civilian) Ray was recruited by the city of New York City to help further develop their water supply infrastructure. The large city was still growing, and they would soon need not only more water, but better systems to deliver it. Ray spent a lot of time over the next decades touring the state, inspecting and directing implementation of his designs, many of which are still providing steady, faithful service today.
Along the way, Ray married a local Lafayette girl, a lass named Nelle Johnson, several years younger than he, who had taken kindly to him when he was young, shy and struggling with polio paralysis. They had only one child, a girl named Mary Elizabeth, who usually went by Betsy or Bets. Sadly, Betsy got very early Alzheimer’s, and all of her memories of her father were lost. Her only son, Thomas Carson, Ray’s only grandchild, a music industry professional, compiled much of Ray’s lesser-known history through much personal research. His work was a great resource to me in writing this essay.
Ray passed away in 1937 just before his 64th birthday. One would normally think that is quite young for an athletically accomplished man who attended faithfully to his health. I can’t find the circumstances, but it seems it was a quick slide at the end and might well have been negatively affected by the health issues of his youth … which followed him through most of his adult life.
In 1928 Ray Ewry was invited back to Purdue to be present at the dedication of the new Ross-Ade Football Stadium. As Purdue’s most accomplished athlete ever (and perhaps most accomplished engineer), he was the guest of honor. For the ceremony, and unknown to almost everybody, Ray brought with him a small jar of soil from the Olympic Field at Athens, still untouched after more than two decades. For the surprise highlight of the dedication ceremony, Ray spread the hallowed ancient Olympic soil upon the stadium field of his Alma Mater.
Ewry’s Olympic record of ten championships held up for many decades. In fact, so far, it has only been broken once, by the superhuman Michael Phelps, who has won 23 gold medals. He broke Ewry’s record of 10 when he won his 7th through 14th Olympic Gold Medals at the Beijing Games, in 2008. However, Phelps is not undefeated, as he won zero medals in 2000 (at Sydney, age 15) and has 28 overall medals (also the most ever) against “only” 25 golds.
It should be noted that several decades later, in 1949, the IOC decided that the 1906 Games were not “Real Olympic Games” and purged all records of those games from their official list. Most historians of athletics disagree, however, and they do indeed count these games and awards, since they were highly attended, highly promoted as Olympics, and set the trajectory for how the games evolved. So, officially, I suppose, per IOC (and Wikipedia and others) Ray Ewry has only eight Olympic championships. But I am with the consensus of historians: we emphatically say ten!
Thank you, Ray Ewry, “The Human Frog”, for showing us that anything is possible if we keep pushing our boundaries and continually try to better ourselves, even in times of strife, viruses, and disease… and beyond.
Joe Girard © 2021
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Footnote (1) Today, the Tower is only visible from this site if one peers carefully between trees growing in the park and new buildings built later in the 20th century. Here is a painting of an aerial view of the 1900 fair, which was likely made from a sketch that was made by an artist aloft in a balloon. The athletic field is the green space across the river. It is possible that the old Theirs city wall, which was quite close to the park and fields, could have obscured the view, despite being heavily damaged during the siege in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870.
Various sources, among very, very many …