Many of the greatest athletes came before the modernization of sport from over 100 years ago. They produced similar results today’s professionals do without using top-line equipment and running on perfect track surfaces. Jim Thorpe is one of those athletes who faced adversity and limitations and overcame the odds to achieve greatness.
James Francis Thorpe was the first Native American athlete to win two gold medals for the USA at the 1912 Summer Olympics. He won one in the pentathlon and the other in the decathlon. Two sports that are no easy feats to accomplish. And giving more accolades to Jim, he won his medals using chunky spikes, baggy clothes, and running on cinder tracks.
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Jim, however, did not have an easy claim to fame. He faced many difficulties in life and did not have an easy childhood. And from these difficulties, struggles and setbacks, he learned to stay persistent and determined to become one of the most dominant athletes in the world.
Jim was born a twin, and when he was nine, his twin brother died from pneumonia. It was a terrible loss for Jim because Charlie used to help him in school. The loss and heartbreak caused Jim to misbehave and run away multiple times from home. Finally, his father enrolled him in an Indian boarding school in Kansas to stop him from running away. His father managed to stop one problem, but others started to surface. Jim was getting into trouble and hanging out with the wrong crowd.
A few years later, his mom died while giving birth. And after engaging in many arguments with his father, Jim left home to work on a horse ranch. Many years later, Jim returned home and decided to go to the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, PA. Later that year, Jim’s father died, and he left school and went back to work. And, some years later, he returned to school a second time, and at this time, his athletic abilities were recognized.
A Star was Born
Thorpe had incredible natural talent and athleticism. One day in 1907, Jim was walking past the track and field team of his school and said to himself, “I can do that better than they can.” Still, he did a 5’ft 9in the impromptu high jump in his street clothes that were better than any track and field athlete. Jim competed in football, baseball, lacrosse, and even ballroom dancing in school, winning the 1912 intercollegiate ballroom dancing championship. Jim had all-around athletic ability.
1912 was a great year for Jim. Jim’s acclaim to fame started in football. He was a running back, defensive back, placekicker, and punter-something you will never see today in football. Thorpe scored all the points in a game against Harvard, a top-ranked team, beating Harvard 18-15. In another record victory, Carlisle beat West Point Army Team 27-6. During the Army game, Thorpe ran a 92-yard touchdown taken back because of a penalty and ran a 97-yard touchdown the next play. Ex-President, Dwight Eisenhower who played against him, said, “Here and there, there are some people who are supremely endowed. My memory goes back to Jim Thorpe. He never practiced in his life, and he could do anything better than any other football player I ever saw.”
Related: Jesse Owens’ Plight to Gold
In the spring of 1912, Jim started training for the Olympics. He mainly trained for jumping events, shot put, and hurdles. At the summer Olympics in Sweden, they introduced two new events, the pentathlon, and the decathlon- the reason they also introduced new individual events like javelin, discus, and pole vaulting. These events were perfect for Thorpe since he was basically a one-person team performing many of the track and field events at Carlisle. Jim entered the pentathlon and decathlon and participated in individual long and high jump events as well. He won four out of the five events during the pentathlon and took third place in the javelin, which he never competed in before. Since points determined the winner of the event, he took the gold.
The final event for Jim was the decathlon. He placed in the top four for all ten events and held the Olympic record of 8413 points for decades. What was even more incredible about the decathlon was, someone stole Jim’s shoes before the competition. He found a mismatched pair of shoes from a trash can before the event started and won the gold using those shoes.
In round 1913, it was found he had been paid for playing two seasons of professional baseball before competing in the Olympics and was stripped of his gold medals. This was a violation of amateur rules at the time. Thorpe had played professional baseball in North Carolina in 1909 and 1910. He received about 2 dollars a game. It was normal for college players at the time to spend summers playing professionally. Many players would use alias names to avoid professional status, but Jim did not. However, in 1983, the IOC restored his Olympic records and medals.
Jim went on to play semi-pro baseball and dominate in pro football. He spent his time touring around playing professional basketball with the “World Famous Indians” in the off-season. Jim was instrumental in forming the American Professional Football Association and eventually became the president of the group. This association eventually became today’s NFL. In 1950, he was named “the greatest American football player” and greatest athlete.
Jim played professional sports until age 41. The sad end to his career happened at the same time the Great Depression started. From there, he struggled with finances and ended up working several odd jobs to survive. He suffered from alcoholism and lived his final years of life in poor health and poverty. He died of heart failure in 1953.
Thorpe’s athletic talents were not hidden. He accomplished many athletic feats and did this in a time of racial inequality in the USA. Many people felt his gold medals were stripped because of being Native American. Also, at the time, Native Americans were not recognized as U.S. citizens until 1924. However, the media would refer to Jim as “redskin” and compete with his Carlisle team as Indians vs. Whites. Nevertheless, it did not bother Jim nor stopped him from becoming one of the greatest athletes of all time, especially when racial tension and segregation were at their highest and most difficult in history.
Jim was an extraordinary human being like Jesse Owens; they fought off failures, overcame dark situations, and alchemized negativity into positivity without violence. If there is anything to be learned, it is not to forget what happened. It is to understand how these two people overcame odds in a time where the odds were heavily against them. Their time was much more complicated than ours today.
Don’t become brainwashed and let negativity sidetrack you. Please do the same as the great athletes, become relentless, help others along with way, and understand your talents and make them shine. Everyone has the ability to become excellent. Just surround yourself with good people and those who want to do the same