Thomas Jefferson Would Have Been a Triathlete

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Independence Day Special: If One of Our Founding Fathers Had Been a Triathlete, it Would Have Been Thomas Jefferson

If Thomas Jefferson, the principal author of the Declaration of Independence, was alive today, I am fairly sure he would have been a triathlete. We of course cannot be certain, but the historical evidence (in my view) points strongly to Jefferson being a multi-sport endurance athlete, and someone with the various personality traits that fit well with the triathletes I know. Here is what we know:

First---the swim. In Jefferson’s era, people did not swim to gain fitness and certainly not to build endurance.

Yet Dumas Malone, Jefferson’s leading biographer notes that Jefferson’s grandson once wrote that Jefferson swam “thirteen times across a mill pond that was a quarter of a mile wide.” Though Malone expresses some doubt over this alleged feat, the evidence clearly suggests some skill in the water, and Jefferson’s interest in testing his endurance. We also know that Jefferson sailed across the Atlantic upon being named America’s ambassador to France. A transatlantic trip in 1784, which for Jefferson lasted 19 days, required a spirit of adventure for sure, perhaps a little bit like the mind-set of an open-water swimmer.

The bike is much harder to corroborate, given that the first known bicycle invention occurred in Germany in 1817, when Jefferson was an elderly man. There is, however, a fair amount of circumstantial evidence that Jefferson indeed might have been a cyclist. We know that he loved to go for a daily horse ride, well into the last years of his life. He also took these rides during his presidency, which indicates his love of the outdoors, an athletic propensity, and a desire to ride.

In his youth, Jefferson was also a speedster. Another historian, Willard Sterne Randall, notes that Jefferson was viewed at as a “bold and fearless rider” who would charge through the rivers and marshes, pushing his horses hard.

We also know that Jefferson loved gadgets of all sorts, and that Jefferson was not afraid to spend money on the newest inventions out there---including one of the first odometers.

These personality characteristics (some might say “obsessions”) sound a lot like most serious cyclists and triathletes I know, who are looking for a few extra seconds on the bike or in the wet suit. One can easily imagine Jefferson being fully immersed in the newest developments aimed at improving cycling performance.

For the run, we have excellent and multiple sources that Jefferson was quite found of a four mile daily walk, and that he also loved to run in his youth. These walks were not for basic transportation or for work in the fields----they were done because Jefferson loved to get out and move, and he did so daily for much of his life. That sounds a lot like long distance runners.

We also know that Jefferson had a very wide range of interests, including architecture, farming, business, music, food, and many scholarly and academic interests, all of which makes me think he would have been drawn to triathlons, rather than any singular sport exclusively.

Thus, on this Fourth of July, all triathletes out there, please hold these truths presented as self- evident: celebrate the nation’s independence along with your communion with Mr. Jefferson himself!

Ryan C. Hendrickson Ph.D. is interim dean of the Graduate School and a professor of Political Science at Eastern Illinois University, a runner and occasional triathlete.
Twitter: @gradschooleiu


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date: June 30, 2016

Team BT