No. 8: Robert Garrett, 1897
Way back in the day, in 1896, to be precise, a Princeton athlete picked up a discus and entered the throwing ring in Athens. Yes, these were the first modern Olympic games, but more importantly for the young athlete, this was his first time throwing the discus — ever. He decided to enter the classic Greek event for fun, but he came out of the experience with a whole lot more — gold, glory and pride.
Robert Garrett, of the Class of 1897, studied and participated in track and field at Princeton. Throughout his undergraduate career, Garrett excelled in his track and field events. Such was his passion and talent for the sport that he captained the team in both his junior and senior years, and decided to try his hand at the Olympic games when word of the new event reached him. Shot put was his specialty event, but he also contended in the jumping events.
After Garrett decided to enter the Olympic games, history professor William Sloane brought up the possibility of competing in the discus throw. Garrett agreed to entertain the idea, and so he hired a blacksmith to construct for him a discus based upon the classical models.
The first model, constructed based on those models, weighed a whopping 30 pounds — an object far too heavy to throw any distance. So Garrett gave up on the discus and decided to focus on shot putting at the Games.
Garrett, who had a very wealthy background, made his own way to Athens and was kind enough to subsidize the trip for three of his fellow student-athletes. All three of them medaled in various track and field events.
Arriving at the Games, Garrett competed exceptionally in the shot put, throwing the heavy, metallic ball 11.22 meters, a distance that earned him a gold, no surprise to those who had followed his career at Old Nassau.
A five-pound discus, however, was quite unexpected. Contrary to what the classical models had divulged to Garrett of the nature of the discus — that it was a 30-pound object with as little practicality as possible — it was, in fact, only a relatively meager five pounds. With this discovery in hand, Garrett, being the true competitor he was, took it upon himself to enter the event just for the pure enjoyment of the competition.
Garrett whirled and twirled in circles, exerting himself to the very maximum and using all the brute force available to him. His form was quite unlike that of the graceful Greeks, who threw the discus with style and panache.
Garrett's first two throws reflected the fact that, indeed, this was his first experience in the event. The discus didn't spin and soar like a Frisbee, as it's supposed to, but rather turned over in the air and fell to the ground with a painful thump.
He came closer to hitting the audience than to competing with the Greeks, and as a result, his efforts were met with laughter. Garrett, though, felt the same way about his attempts, taking an extremely lighthearted approach to the discus-throw.
On his third and final throw, however, the unthinkable happened. Garrett's discus sling-shotted out of his twirling form and simply flew.
It flew 11 centimeters past the top Greek competitor, and with that, the gold was won.
The Greeks were in shock; they had been defeated in their event by an American with no training and no proficiency in the event whatsoever.
One American spectator at the stadium, Burton Holmes, recorded the sense of astonishment that prevailed over the arena.
"All were stupefied. The Greeks had been defeated at their own classic exercise," Burton wrote. "They were overwhelmed by the superior skill and daring of the Americans, to whom they ascribed a supernatural invincibility enabling them to dispense with training and to win at games which they had never before seen."
Garret went on to win two more silver medals in addition to his two gold medals in the shot put and discus throw. He finished second in both the high jump and long jump.
In yesterday's paper: No. 9: Nelson Diebel '96
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