Michael Phelps, move over. Payne Whitney Gymnasium needs some room on the Olympic podium.
Perhaps one of Yale’s largest and most sedentary Olympians, the building earned a silver medal in the 1936 Berlin Games, when its architectural plans demolished the competition in one of five art categories.
While only credited with one Olympic medal, Payne Whitney Gym could also claim responsibility for a large portion of the 104 medals Yale athletes have garnered since the modern Games began in 1896.
One-hundred sixty-two Yale-affiliated athletes and 19 Yale coaches, participating in nearly 20 different sports, have traveled to the Olympics. From bobsledding to judo to water polo — Yale athletes have always had a strong showing at the Games, setting records and making headlines.
“Yale has a nice approach to athletics,” Olympian Bill Steinkraus ’48 said. “Whether it’s intramurals or varsity sports, there is a wide range of sports offered. It’s somewhat of an old-fashioned ideal, having such a variety.”
As early as 1900, Yale Olympians have represented their countries in the international competition. Yalie James “Stillman” Rockefeller ’24 appeared on the cover of Time Magazine in 1924 when he captained the gold-medal winning heavyweight crew team. Eddie Eagan ’21 won the bobsledding competition in 1932, becoming the only person to win a gold medal in both the summer and winter Olympics after his earlier 1920 victory in boxing.
Yale athletes, like Eagan, have made names for themselves by competing in multiple games. Over 20 Bulldog Olympians made repeat appearances, including Steinkraus.
Steinkraus, an equestrian, competed in six Olympiads, collecting four medals over a span of two decades. He led the United States to a team bronze in 1952 and team silvers in both 1960 and 1972 while winning individual gold in 1968.
“[The Olympiads] were all different,” Steinkraus said. “Each one reflected the country that was hosting the games as well as the evolution of the Olympic movement and the equestrian sport. But they were all very fascinating.”
When Steinkraus, a young equestrian enthusiast, came to Yale, he was forced to look off-campus to continue his training. At the time, Yale did not have an equestrian team. As it turned out, Izzy Winters, a retired Yale wrestling coach, was a “horse nut.” Upon learning that Steinkraus was in New Haven, Winters invited him to ride at his stables in nearby West Haven. There, Steinkraus was able to pursue his Olympic dreams.
Unlike Steinkraus, other Yale Olympians learned their sport only after arriving in the Elm City. Oarsman Peter Nordell ’88, who had never rowed before arriving in New Haven, joined the men’s heavyweight crew team his freshman year as a walk-on. Nordell quickly excelled at the sport, made the National Team his sophomore year, and traveled to South Korea for the 1988 Olympics the summer after his senior year.
“Any way you look at it, Yale was pretty influential,” said Nordell, whose U.S. team won bronze in Seoul.
Nordell said the encouragement of Yale’s crew coaches propelled him to the Olympic stage. His freshman year coach convinced him to pick up an oar, while head coach Tony Johnson, who owned one of only four trial rowing machines, submitted Nordell’s name and statistics to the national team.
In addition to introducing him to the sport, Nordell said Eli coaches and athletes created an extended web of Olympic connections. The coxswain of his Olympic boat was also a Yale alum — Seth Bauer ’81 — while his fellow rower John Pescatore would eventually become Yale’s current heavyweight coach.
Crew and swimming have proven to be Yale’s two strongest disciplines. From 1932 to 1968, Yale was a dominant force in the pool, sending 21 athletes and coaches to the Games. Although Yale’s success in the pool tapered off after 1968, swimming head coach Frank Keefe, himself an Olympic coach in 1984, 1988, and 2000, was able to work with swimmers George Gleason ’01 and Stephen Fahy ’00 in the 2000 Olympics.
“Going to Australia was a lot of fun because it was two of my Yale kids,” Keefe said.
In fact, Keefe said, Yale’s incredible success in swimming was due in part to silver-medalist Payne-Whitney’s state-of-the-art facilities. Built in 1932, the gymnasium held one of the only indoor 50-meter pools in the country and drew some of the best swimming talent around.
“[Yale] had the finest coach and finest facilities in the country,” Keefe said. “It held a tremendous attraction to kids that wanted to swim.”
And while Payne Whitney’s facilities gradually grew out-of-date — and art was removed from the Olympics in 1948 — the gym retains its stature as the mother of Yale Olympians.
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