Imagine it’s the summer of 1912 in the beautiful country of Sweden. It’s the Summer Olympics games and athletes have traveled across the world to come to Sweden to compete. The stands in the stadium are full of excited onlookers. The next event is a sprint and all of the runners are lining up to start the race. But you notice one is missing. It’s the athlete from the United States, Jim Thorpe. You’ve seen him compete in several events that day and do very well. You were hoping to see him race in this event. Is he going to miss the race? Where is he? Suddenly, he comes running out onto the track, but something isn’t quite right. One of his shoes is very big and the other shoe is very small! How is he going to compete in this race with mismatched shoes? The gun goes off and the race is on. Jim Thorpe is your favorite athlete today, so you cheer him on. But he’s behind. “Go Jim, go!” You shout. After the first few laps he is still behind … but wait … it’s the fourth lap and he’s gaining speed. He’s pushing again. “You can do it! You can do it!” Suddenly, Jim Thorpe is at the head of the race! He bursts across the finish line, you jump out of your seat cheering, and the crowd goes wild. Jim did it. He won the race, even with his funny, mismatched shoes. Why were his shoes mismatched? And how did Jim become such a strong athlete?
Jim was born on May 28, 1887, in Prague, Oklahoma. He was born on a Native American reservation of the Sak and Faux Nation and was first given the name Wa-Tho-Huk, which means “Bright Path.” His mother was Native American but his father was Irish, so he was also given an English name Jacobus Franciscus Thorpe. Later he became known as James or Jim.
Jim had a tough childhood. His parents were farmers, so he spent time helping them grow crops to survive, but he also learned to hunt and trap animals for food from an early age. He spent much of his time running across the wilderness of Oklahoma, which gave him strong legs and lungs. This is called endurance and he was able to run many miles without stopping to catch his breath.
Growing up, Jim’s parents tried to get him to attend school, but he usually ran away from school at the first chance he got to instead spend time outdoors. There was a lot going on in Jim’s life at this time. His brother and mother passed away, and he and his father argued and fought. Eventually, his father sent him to a new school in Kansas.
In 1904, life would change for Jim when he started attending Carlisle Industrial School in Pennsylvania. One day he noticed the track-and-field team practicing the high jump. Still wearing his work clothes, he thought he’d give it a try. Jim ran across the field and leapt over the 5 foot 9 high bar and broke the school’s record! No one could believe what they had just seen! One of the coaches named Pop Warner saw what Jim did and encouraged him to join the track-and-field team. Of course, with his strong body and strong heart and lungs, Jim excelled at track-and-field and many other sports at Carlisle. He went on to football, lacrosse, baseball, and even ballroom dancing! Jim ended up winning a very big competition for ballroom dancing in 1912.
But, Jim became best known for his skills on the football field. Coach Pop Warner wasn’t sure how he’d do, but when he gave Jim the chance, he grabbed the ball and dodged around the defending team faster than anyone he’d ever seen. Jim played running back, defensive back, and punter for Carlisle’s football team and scored big wins against teams such as Harvard and West Point. His team went on to win the college national championships thanks to Jim’s skill, strength, and speed. He scored 25 touchdowns that year and 198 points.
Jim played many sports but football became his favorite and around this time he also started training for the Olympics in the Sprint of 1912. At the practices, he amazed the other athletes with his abilities at jumps, hurdles, and shot-puts. He prepared to compete in several other Olympic events as well. Also, while many of these athletes had been training for years, Jim started just a few months before the Summer Olympic Games.
In the Summer of 1912, Jim traveled to Stockholm, Sweden with the other members of the U.S. Olympic Team. Jim competed in many events, but his biggest win was in the decathlon, which includes 10 different events – four runs, three jumps, and three throws. He beat the expected winner and placed in the top 4 in all 10 events earning a score of 8,413, which held the record for 20 years.
During one of the races, Jim went to put on his shoes but couldn’t find them! He looked all over but finally decided to just use whatever he could – a shoe that was way too small, and another shoe that was too big! He used a sock to make the big shoe fit and rushed out to start the race. For the first three laps of the race, Jim was behind, but giving it his on on the final lap, he burst ahead and ended up winning the race, even with his mismatched and odd-fitting shoes!
People from all over the world watching the games were astounded at Jim’s athletic abilities. He brought great attention to the United States and his Sac and Fox Native American heritage. At the 1912 Summer Olympic Games, Jim won two gold medals and legend has it that when he did King Gustav of Sweden said to him “You, sir, are the greatest athlete in the world.”
After returning to America, Jim Thorpe became a star. This was his first time being famous, so he was surprised to see his name in so many places and have so many people recognize him.
Next, Jim played professional baseball for the New York Giants and with them became the 1913 National League champions. They then went on to tour around the United States with the Chicago White Sox where Jim was a celebrity and attracted even more spectators to the games. On the tour, Jim met the pope and one of the kings of Egypt. He also went on to play baseball for the Cincinnati Reds and the Boston Braves.
Jim Thorpe was talented in many sports, so after baseball, he decided to take up football again, his favorite sport, and in 1920 joined the Canton Bulldogs. They won three championships together. Two years later the National Football League (NFL) was formed and Jim got to become their first president while he continued playing for the Bulldogs until 1928.
It’s not as well known, but Jim also played basketball for two years, traveling with a team. Jim loved a variety of sports and more than anything just wanted to stay active, doing what he enjoyed most.
After he retired from professional sports, Jim continued working but found that he didn’t enjoy most of the other jobs as much as he loved being active and competing as an athlete. It was also a tough time to find jobs because it was the Great Depression when work was hard to come by. One of the jobs was acting in movies such as Westerns or sports movies. In 1951 a movie was made about him called “Jim Thorpe – All American.”
In many surveys, Jim Thorpe has been voted the greatest athlete of the 20th Century along with athletes such as Michael Jordan, Muhammed Ali, Babe Ruth, Jesse Owens, and Wayne Gretzky. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1963 and in 2018 was printed on the Native American dollar coin.
Take a minute to think about what you might learn from the life of Jim Thorpe. Staying active when he was young helped build his body to be strong and healthy. Jim loved to be out and move around. How might you find more ways to stay active? Jim tried many different sports. There are lots of ways to be active. For you, it may be a sport or something as simple as getting out and riding a bike or playing at a playground. What are your favorite ways to stay active? Think about Jim’s willingness to try lots of different things. The first time we try something new, everyone is a beginner! Don’t be afraid to try new things even if you aren’t good at them at first. This is important as you seek new ways to learn and grow.