The US Olympic team in Rio currently has 11 New Yorkers. So far medals have been won by fencers Miles Chamley-Watson (Bronze--team event) and Daryl Homer (Silver, individual) as well as by swimmer Lia Neal (silver, 4X100 relay). Given it's relative size, and the sporting prowess of its teams and clubs (Columbia University's record college football losing streak notwithstanding), New York City perhaps has not produced the number of Olympic champions you might expect. That said, there are many legends from the past with roots in the 5 boroughs. I'll run through my list of the most significant Olympians from New York City,--not including team sport participants or other sports like boxing and tennis where the athlete's fame is not primarily won at the Olympics. (A good list of top basketball players from the 5 boroughs can be found here; only one from that list, Chris Mullin, even played in the Olympics. Lenny Wilkins won golds as a coach. That doesn't include players with the New York Knicks who played at the Olympics). I'm including players with some roots in New York City, including NYC universities like Fordham and Columbia.
If I've missed any athletes, please feel free to tell me in the comments!!
1. Bob Beamon, from South Jamaica, Queens and Jamaica High School.
There can be no debate about the greatest Olympic moment by a New Yorker. Bob Beamon, from Jamaica High School in Queens, shattered the world record in the men's long jump in 1968 by an amount unforeseen by the sport's organizers. His jump was beyond the measuring equipment--one foot 9 inches or 55 cm beyond teammate Ralph Boston's then world record. An excellent video summary of the event can be viewed here. Beamon's jump was measured at 8 meters 90 centimeters; although Beamon wasn't familiar with the metric system and had to be told it was 29 ft. 2½ in.
Beamon's rise to athletic fame is remarkable given his childhood. His mother died while he was an infant. He was expelled from school once. But at Jamaica High School, he was discovered and mentored by the legendary track coach Ralph Ellis. He started to break records and won a scholarship at Western College of the University of Texas (now University of Texas at El-Paso. He didn't graduate because he refused to compete against Brigham Young University over its racist policies. Coached unofficially by Olympian Ralph Boston, he qualified for the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City as the favorite for the long jump.
Beamon's record lasted for 23 years, broken in Tokyo in 1991 by American Mike Powell by 5 centimeters. Carl Lewis once jumped, remarkably at the same event as Powell, one centimeter past Beamon's record in a wind-aided jump, but that effort is not eligible for the record books. To put Beamon's record in a different perspective--only one person has made a legal jump further than Beamon in history in official competition--48 years afterwards. In Rio, the winning jump in the men's event was 8.38 meters, more than half a meter short of Beamon's jump.
I would rank Beamon's leap as the greatest athletic achievement by a New Yorkers, including baseball records by players such as Lou Gehrig, Babe Ruth or Joe DiMaggio. Their records are not tested by global competition. Also, most baseball records are arbitrary numbers only loosely connected with ultimate success in the sport. Beamon's jump literally defined the physical limit of the human body.. Beamon's jump is routinely cited around the world as one of the greatest athletic achievements ever and was ranked by the UK's Guardian as the 2nd greatest ever Summer Olympic moment.
2. Al Oerter. From Astoria, Queens.
If Beamon's jump was the greatest ever Olympic moment for a New Yorker, Al Oerter's 4 straight gold medals from 1956-1968 in the discus throw is surely the greatest Olympic career by a New Yorker. He's one of three Olympians to win an Olympic event 4 straight times--the others are Carl Lewis and Michael Phelps.
Al Oerter was born in 1937 in Astoria, Queens but grew up just over the Nassau County border in New Hyde Park, and attended Sewanhaka High School where he competed in track. He started as a runner. The story of how he became a discus thrower is like a fairy tale. One day a discus landed at his feet in practice, and he picked it up and threw it so far he was made a discus thrower by the coach. His success earned him a scholarship at the University of Kansas, where he was a classmate of Wilt Chamberlain. He won two NCAA titles.
He first made the US Olympic team in 1956 in the Melbourne games and won his first gold with a throw of 184 feet and 11 inches, or 56.36 meters. In addition to his four consecutive golds, he set the world record 6 times, though his Olympic throws were never world records.
What's remarkable about his 4 Olympic golds is he suffered significant injuries. In 1957 he was nearly killed in a car crash but recovered for the 1960 games. In 1964 before the Tokyo Olympics he slipped and suffered significant reb injuries on his throwing side. He was told not to compete but did anyway. He won his third straight gold playing through significant pain.
In 2009, two years after he died, the Al Oerter Recreation Center was opened in Flushing Meadows Corona Park in Queens, a tribute to one of the borough's greatest sons.
3. Gertrude Ederle, from Manhattan.
I have to admit that by the criteria I established for this post, Gertrude Ederle is an exception. Her medal haul--1 relay gold and two individual bronzes in Paris 1924 are notable but not what made Ederle famous. She was the greatest swimmer of her time, known as the "Queen of the Waves" and the first woman to swim the English Channel.
She was born in 1905 in Hell's Kitchen to German immigrant parents. Her father ran a butcher shop on Amsterdam Avenue, and owned a cottage in Highlands, New Jersey where she learned to swim. She joined the Woman's Swimming Association in Manhattan, where she came under the tutelage of the WSA's founder and pioneer of women's swimming Charlotte Epstein and former Olympic swimmer and developer of the 'American crawl' style Louis Handley.
In 1922 in Brighton Beach she set seven world records and established herself as a world-famous swimmer. She traveled to the Olympics in Paris as the favorite for 3 gold medals. She got one with the 4x100 relay team which set a world record. However, during the games Ederle suffered fatigue and injury and may have not been in top form. Had she swum in a later era, almost certainly would have won more medals. In 1924 there were only 5 medal events available to female swimmers. Also, by turning professional to attract sponsors, Ederle became ineligible for future Olympics.
It was after her amateur career that she really struck fame. She swam from Manhattan's Battery Park to Sandy Hook in New Jersey in seven hours in a widely publicized race, and then turned her eyes on the English Channel, which no woman had ever swum across. She succeeded on her second attempt, crossing the Channel in 14 hours and 34 minutes, two hours faster than any man had done it. This feat catapulted her to immense fame. She was greeted by two million cheering fans at her ticker-tape parade in New York, and became one of the symbols of the Roaring Twenties. She stared in a movie, Swim, Girl, Swim, and had an unsuccessful vaudeville career.
She suffered a back injury in 1933 that kept her in bed for 4 years, After that she lived modestly, for much of her remaining life in Flushing, Queens. She taught at the Lexington School for the Deaf for many years--Ederle herself had hearing problems most of her life. She's buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx. In 2013 the 59th Street Recreation Center, part of the NYC Parks Department, was renamed the Gertrude Ederle Recreation Center after a renovation. It is located several blocks from where she grew up.
4. John Flanagan, from Manhattan., born in Ireland
It's hard to imagine now but there was a time when the Hammer Throw was an American-dominated event, or more specifically, and Irish-American event. A number of Irishmen medaled in this event in its early years (before it was dominated by the USSR).. Much of this dominance was due to the prowess of the Irish American Athletic Club (IAAC), based in Queens in today's Sunnyside neighborhood. Though the club folded during WWI, it had a huge impact on early years of American track and field Olympic success, and produced a three-time Hammer Throw Olympic champion John Flanagan.
Flanagan was born in Country Limerick Ireland in 1873 and made the crossing to the US where be became a police officer in New York City as well as a member of the IAAC and the New York Athletic Club. He was the only non-college man to win a medal for the US in the 1900 games in Paris, where he won the first of his three consecutive gold medals in the hammer throw. In 1904 in St Louis he also won a silver in the now defunct weight throw.
He frequently competed in competitions in the New York area, often at the IAAC's Celtic Park facility in Queens, where the Celtic Park apartments now stand. He later returned to Ireland and coached a gold medal winning hammer thrower from Ireland, Pat O'Callaghan, who was the first non-American to win the event.
5. Ethelda Bleibtrey, from Waterford NY, grew up in Brooklyn
Three gold medals seems like a small number for a swimmer. Well before Michael Phelps won his astronomical haul, Mark Spitz won 7 golds in 1976. But in 1920 at the Antwerp Olympics, Brooklynite Ethelda Bleibtrey won all three gold medals available to female swimmers at the time.
She was born Upstate but grew up in Brooklyn and attended Erasmus Hall High School where she took up swimming in part to heal from a back injury, and it remained a lifelong passion. She joined the Woman's Swimming Association in Manhattan and became a favorite for medals at the 1920 Olympic Games, where she won gold at the 100 meter freestyle, the 300 meter freestyle, and the 4x100 relay. The backstroke, her strongest event, was not available for women in 1920.
She would remain an advocate for women's swimming for the rest of her life. In a stunt to promote the value of swimming for health, she once was arrested for swimming in the Central Park Reservoir (now Jackie Kennedy Onassis Reservoir).