Wa-Tho-Huk ("Bright Path")
Updated: Jul 30
When I was in sixth grade I was in the Library at Holy Rosary looking for a book to do a report on for my English class. Against the back wall there was a series of blue books that were all 100 page biographies. Everyone from Hellen Keller to Teddy Roosevelt was among the books. My eye caught one name that I maybe recognized but I don't think it clicked. The biography was Jim Thorpe. I was immediately captivated by his story. "The greatest athlete in the world" it said in a blurb on a page before the start of the book. Being obsessed with sports I was all in. It talked about his childhood on an Indian Reservation in Oklahoma where he played every sport and dominated in every thing he did. He could run, throw, hit baseballs and kick a football a mile. It talked about him going to Carlisle College which was a school for native americans where he played every sport and thrived. He then participated in the 1912 Olympics where he won 15 gold medals, winning the decathlon and pentathlon. The King of Sweden declaring him "The greatest athlete in the World". He was later stripped of his medals because he accepted 25 dollars to play in a baseball game and that technically violated the amateur rules. The second place athletes who were now able to have the gold medal did not accept the medals but in the record books Jim was removed. The book finished with him bouncing around from city to city playing pro baseball and football. I was so enamored with his story my middle name James that I got to choose for my confirmation was named after him. That was the white washed bullshit story of Jim Thorpe.
Jim Thorpe's name was Wa-Tho-Huk which means Bright Path. He did not have an idyllic youth. During this time in our history the US government created schools to strip Native American children of their heritage and history. They cut their hair, forbade them to speak in their native language and dressed them in the clothing of the white people. The US government wanted to assimilate them to the point of erasing who they were as a people.
Throughout history the one thing that has transcended race, religion, and culture is sport. It is the one place where only the rules of the game apply. If you are the best than you are awarded as such. Jim knew this. His athletic prowess was unmatched . He was truly the greatest athlete in the world. He descended from a long line of great hunters and warriors. He was also blessed with a toughness and grit that has never been matched in the world of sport. To have your dignity stripped from you from the US government and you still dominated the world of athletics is an amazing achievement.
The reason I decided to write this blog post is because this week the Olympic Committee finally awarded Jim all of his medals. In 1983 the OC granted him co-winner of each of his events. Jim Thorpe is now the sole winner of his olympic triumphs. It has taken 110 years to give this man his proper respect.
There are things that happen to you in your life that might seem that they only effect the present moment. When Jim was stripped of his Olympic medals he not only was embarrassed and disrespected as a human being he was also banned from the 1916 and 1920 Olympics. What could of been if he was allowed to compete. Schools would of been named after him, he would of been an international ambassador for all sports. This was all taken from him. He ended up playing professional baseball and football. He played until he was 41 years old which was unheard of at the time. Your idea of pro sports was not how it was a hundred years ago. The pay was terrible and the injuries the athletes suffered were life altering. He bounced from team to team just breaking even and started drinking heavily to kill the mental and physical pain. Jim Thorpe died at the age of 65. The end of his life he was ditch digger and died broke.
I am grateful that I stumbled upon that blue book when I was in 6th grade. Hopefully his legacy will live on and people will begin to look at him as an inspiration. He was stripped of his heritage as a child. He was stripped of his athletic achievements. He was stripped of his dignity. It is a great American tragedy. When I run my 100 miles races I think of Jim Thorpe. I think of his grit, his tenacity, and his ability to transcend. I've had to overcome just a small fraction of what Jim did and I can only hope that I can also transcend as he did. A small part Wa-Tho-Huk's legacy has been restored. The "bright path" of which his name translates to is fitting to a man like Jim. We could all use a bright path and we could all learn and maybe invoke a little bit of Jim Thorpe's spirit.