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 Ewry?
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.