Being Thankful For Your Shoes

This is the week to give thanks for all that we have. Today we’ll look at an Olympian who was thankful for two mismatched shoes. Let’s dig in.

It’s Almost Hard to Conceptualize the Past in Terms of Today

Just a century ago, Americans had far less. Most were thankful for a good pair of shoes and a roof over their heads and food in their belly. There were no cell phones, huge TVs, or all of the stuff we now consider essential for modern life. A refrigerator that didn’t require ice delivery was an extreme luxury and a washing machine generally meant the elbow grease required to wash your clothes in a tub of soap. I have lived in a Victorian home for the past two decades and thinking about all that went into just getting the house warm in the 1890s is mind-boggling.

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An Olympian with a Shoe Problem

You’ve may have heard the story about Jim Thorpe, or maybe you don’t even know who that is. Jim was an American Indian athlete who is largely considered one of the world’s GOATs. Thorpe participated in 15 events during the 1912 Summer Games and won eight of them, leading gold medals in both the pentathlon and decathlon. He also played football (collegiate and professional), professional baseball, and basketball. Basically, Jim made modern greats like two-sport athlete Dion Sanders look like a rank amateur.

In the 1912 summer Olympics in Stockholm Sweden, right before the start of the decathlon, Jim’s shoes were stolen. That could be because he had crushed so many other athletes in the other events that many were worried that they made the trip for nothing. Note in the picture above that his shoes are mismatched. One shoe was donated by another athlete and the other they dug out of the trash. One was too big, so on that side, he’s wearing two socks. He went on to win the decathlon with his two mismatched shoes.

Being Thankful for Your Shoes

Jim’s story is largely considered one of the classics for reminding us that we shouldn’t make excuses or let anything get in the way of our dreams. However, this Thanksgiving week, I’ll offer another explanation. Jim was thankful to have shoes.

Jim attended an Indian Agency school, with his twin brother, Charlie. His brother helped him through school until Charlie died of pneumonia at age nine. Jim ran away from school several times so his father sent him to an Indian boarding school. Thorpe’s mother died in childbirth two years later and he became depressed. After multiple arguments with his father, he left home to work on a horse ranch while still in his early teens. In 1904 Thorpe returned to his father at age 16 and attended Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania. It was there that his athletic ability was finally recognized.

Thorpe was coached by Glenn “Pop” Warner, the one whose name is proudly affixed to many of today’s modern youth football programs. He was orphaned while still in high school after his father died from gangrene poisoning. Thorpe again dropped out of school and resumed ranch work for a few years before finally returning to Carlisle School.

So my take on Jim Thorpe is different. When a kid grows up hard like this, losing his shoes before a big race is nothing. He was just thankful to have any shoes.

A Final Challenge

In 1913, a newspaper reported that Thorpe had previously been paid as a professional athlete at $2 a game to play baseball. Apparently, this was common at the time, with college athletes playing summer professional ball to earn extra money. However, most used aliases to avoid this issue, but Jim did not. This was a problem, as at the time, the athlete needed to be an amateur to participate in the Olympics. He penned this letter to try to clear his name:

“I hope I will be partly excused by the fact that I was simply an Indian schoolboy and did not know all about such things. In fact, I did not know that I was doing wrong, because I was doing what I knew several other college men had done, except that they did not use their own names …”

That didn’t help as the Olympic committee stripped him of his medals later that year, which was against their own rules as he was outside of the 30 day objection period. Thorpe’s medals were finally reinstated in the 1980s and presented to his children.

The upshot? As we get older and more stuff comes our way, it’s hard to be thankful for the little things that we take for granted. Like our health, our relationships, the shirt on our back, and the shoes on our feet. So when I look at the image above, while I see triumph over adversity, I also see a man who is happy that he has shoes. So the next time you get angry at what you don’t have, look down and stare at the two miracles on your feet.

Chris Centeno, MD is a specialist in regenerative medicine and the new field of Interventional Orthopedics. Centeno pioneered orthopedic stem cell procedures in 2005 and is responsible for a large amount of the published research on stem cell use for orthopedic applications. View Profile

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