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Six Fun Facts About New England Olympians

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Hundreds of New England Olympians have won, lost and placed in the summer games since they restarted in Athens in 1896.

New England’s colleges, especially the Ivies, produced many, but not all of the region’s Olympians. Some came from humble backgrounds, though a Rockefeller won a gold medal in 1924.

Some parlayed their Olympic fame into sporting careers, while others distinguished themselves in other fields.

Here, then, are six fun facts about New England Olympians.

1. Boston Sent Most of the First New England Olympians

Nine of the 14 Americans who competed in the 1896 Olympics came from either the Boston Athletic Association or the Suffolk Athletic Club of South Boston.

The Suffolk Athletic Club sponsored James B. Connolly, born in South Boston to poor Irish immigrants. He won the first event– the triple jump – thus becoming the first Olympian since the Athenian Zopyrus won the pankration in 385. Or maybe it was the Armenian Varasdates who won at boxing in 369.

James Connolly, one of the first New England Olympians (and one of the first modern Olympians)

He took home a silver medal (gold medals weren’t issued then) and an olive laurel wreath. He almost didn’t make it because a thief stole his wallet on the way to the games.

Connolly went on to have a successful writing career. He published more than 200 short stories and 25 novels, and he ran for Congress twice as a Progressive Party candidate. He lost both times.

The Suffolk Athletic Club also sponsored Thomas Burke in those first games. Burke, a second-year law student at Boston University, won the 100-yeard dash and the 400-yard run. He thus became the first person to win two events in the modern games.

Burke, too, followed a career as a writer. He worked for the Boston Journal and the Boston Post.

2. Margaret Abbott Wins in High Heels

Margaret Abbott never knew that she was the first woman to win an Olympic event.

She competed in the 1900 Paris Olympics, which coincided with the Paris Exposition and was treated as a sideshow. Called the Championnat Internationaux instead of the Olympics, it stretched out over six months and received little media attention.

Margaret had spent her early years in Boston but moved to Chicago when her mother, Mary Abbott, got a job there as literary editor of the Chicago Herald. Mother and daughter both took up golf as members of the Chicago Golf Club. Then in 1899 they moved to Paris, where Margaret studied art with Rodin and Degas. Her mother worked on a travel guide.

Margaret Abbott in her golf togs.

The Championnat Internationaux only allowed women to compete in five sports: golf, tennis, croquet, sailing and equestrianism. Mother and daughter entered the golf tournament held on Oct. 4, 1900, with no idea that it was an Olympic game.

Margaret won the tournament, despite wearing high heels and a long, tight skirt. She never realized she’d won an Olympic game. Only after her death did a University of Florida professor, Paula Welch, figure it out. Welch also served on the Olympic board of directors.

Margaret Abbott returned to Chicago, where she married the well-known humorist Peter Finley Dunne. Her son, Phillip Dunne, also won recognition as a Hollywood screenwriter. She died in 1955 in Greenwich, Conn.

3. Harry Hillman, the Raw Egg Man

A rogue wave washed over the deck of the steamship that carried the US. Team to the 1906 summer Olympics in Athens, injuring Harry Hillman and several other athletes. Hillman suffered a knee injury that Impaired his performance, and he won no medals.

Perhaps he took comfort in the fact that the Olympic Committee didn’t recognize the 1906 games.

Harry Hillman, who became a long-time coach at Dartmouth

It did, however, recognize the 1904 games, in which Hillman won gold medals for the 400-meter race, the 200-meter hurdles and the 400-meter hurdles. And in the 1908 games, also recognized, he won a silver medal in the 400-meter hurdle.

The next year he set an odd world record that no one has broken. He and Lawson Robertson ran a 100-yard three-legged race in 11 seconds.

Hillman went on to coach track at Dartmouth from 1910 until he died in Hanover, N.H., in 1965. As track coach, he urged his hurdlers to swallow raw eggs. He believed them “excellent for the wind and stomach.”

4. Eight New England Olympians From Yale

Elis have won 107 Olympic medals, including the gold medal for rowing in the 1924 Olympics. The team, called the Yale Eight, had two members who had illustrious careers.

Captain James Rockefeller

James Rockefeller captained the team and later led the bank that became Citigroup. His grandson said he took more pride in his Olympic medal than in his banking career.

New Haven native Dr. Benjamin Spock rowed on the Yale Eight as well. Later, as America’s most famous baby doctor, he warned against putting young children into “excessive competition.”

5. Albina Osipowich, Worcester’s Sweetheart

Albina Osipowich was a 17-year-old high school student from Worcester when she boarded a steamship bound for the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam. She belonged to the U.S. Olympic swim team, which also included two future Tarzans: Johnny Weissmuller and Buster Crabbe. When she returned to Worcester weeks later, 100,000 people greeted her and fellow Worcesterite Harry Devine, a boxer who had won a bronze medal. She had catapulted to world fame by winning two gold medals.

The U.S. women’s Olympic swim team. Osipowich is third from left.

Osipowich had so excelled at swimming she trained at the Boys Club, mostly competing against boys. She nearly didn’t make the Olympic team, though, because she came down with the flu just before the trials. But she made it, breaking a world record while winning the 100-meter freestyle and winning the 400-meter relay.

The people of Worcester collected $4,000 for her tuition to Pembroke, then the women’s college of Brown University. In 1930, Brown let her swim in the Colgate-Hoyt Pool, the first woman to do so.

She met and married a basketball player, Harrison Van Aken. They raised two children and until her death in xxx she rarely talked about her Olympic glory.

6. Collegiate Olympians, By the Numbers

New England colleges have produced hundreds of medal-winning Olympians. Through 2016, Harvard students took home 108 medals, with Elis close behind at 107. But they only rank eighth and ninth in the country behind the big California, Florida, Texas and Michigan schools.

Dartmouth has produced 63 medal winners, Brown 37, Boston University 23, Northeastern 18 and UConn 14. Williams and MIT students have each grabbed 12.Those in the single digits include

Middlebury 5
Boston College 3
Holy Cross 2
Brandeis 1
Community College of Rhode Island 1
Emerson College 1

Wondering who those lone winners are?

Brandeis fencer Tim Morehouse ’00 who scored a silver medal with the U.S. men’s sabre team at the Beijing Olympics in 2008.

Simon Shnapir of Emerson College won a bronze in team figure skating in 2014. His partner, Marissa Castelli, studied at the Community College of Rhode Island.

This story updated in 2022.

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