George Eyser: Six Olympic medals and a wooden leg

George Eyser was a German-American athlete, born in the August of 1870. One might say that Eyser was the embodiment of the American dream, rising from the lowly standing of German immigrant and amputee, to winning six Olympic medals in a single day and launching himself to sporting glory.

Eyser moved with his family to the United States of America in 1884 at the age of 14; the family ended up settling just outside of St Louis, Missouri. During his teenage years Eyser was involved in a train accident, resulting in the train running him over and having to have his leg amputated above the knee. After his operation Eyser wasted no time in gaining back his mobility and independence. He had a prosthetic made, preventing him from becoming reliant on a wheelchair or crutches. Though it would have been stiff and not as comfortable as a modern prosthetic, made of wood and moulded leather, it gave him back the ability to run and jump.

This would be crucial for Eyser as during his youth he joined a local turnverein club named the Concordia, which was located in the southern suburbs of St Louis. Turnverein, or gymnastics, had become increasingly popular in the United States at the turn of the century. The sport, which originated in Germany and roughly translated to “turning” in English, had been popular in Germany and as such was brought over to the United States with the influx of German immigration. The sport included athletics style practices and tumbling, working with equipment like the rings, the parallel bars, vault horse etc. Though to modern onlookers, Eyser’s leg may seem as though it would have been a hindrance, it allowed him the freedom of movement he needed to compete in many gymnastic areas.

The 1904 Olympic games was only the 3rd modern day Olympic games; during the games gymnastics was split into two events. The first was the International Turner’s Championship, comprising of apparatus, triathlon, and team events. Eyser did not do well in this initial competition. He fell well short of the other competitors in the apparatus events and came last by a large amount in the triathlon.

As was customary at the time, the Olympic Gymnastic Championships were held several months later. It was here that Eyser excelled. During this second set of games he won six medals in a single day. He won gold in the rope climb, vault, and parallel bars; silver in combined four events and the pommel horse; bronze in the horizontal bar. George Eyser was an inspiration to disabled athletes decades before the advent of the Paralympics, and was the first person to compete in the Olympics with a prosthetic limb until 2008, when South African swimmer Natalie Du Toit swam in the 2008 Beijing Games.