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James Brendan Connolly, of South Boston, recalled as Olympic champion

Posted by Patrick Rosso  July 25, 2012 05:21 PM

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(Patrick D. Rosso/

The memorial to Connolly, dedicated in 1987 and designed by artist Thomas Haxo. The memorial was paid for through a grant by the Edward Ingersoll Browne Trust Fund.

As sports fans turn their attention to the 2012 Olympics in London, the legacy of one South Boston resident, James Brendan Connolly, will be on the minds of many.

Connolly, born in 1868 to Irish immigrants and raised on Gold and E Street, was the first American and first Olympian to medal in the first modern Olympics in Greece in 1896.

Connolly competed in the hop, step, and jump competition, which today is known as the triple jump, taking home the silver, the highest award at the time. Connolly also competed in the high jump in 1896, coming in second.

He was the first athlete in 1896 to receive his medals and came home a hero.

But Connolly’s story doesn’t end with the Olympics, nor does it stop in South Boston.

An accomplished writer, Connolly went on the write short stories about life on the sea and his time serving during the Spanish-American War. The letters he wrote to friends during the war were published in The Boston Globe during the war, giving Americans a firsthand look at the turmoil of battle.

But although his musing may have inspired many, even catching the eye of President Theodore Roosevelt, according to the South Boston Historical Society, its his lasting impact in the neighborhood that many remember him for.

With a statue built in his honor in Joe Moakley Field, near Saunders Stadium, kids playing on the grass can learn about a man who pushed the limits and never took no for an answer.

“South Boston in very much rooted in sports, Irish heritage, and patriotism,” said Raymond Flynn, who dedicated the statue in 1987 during his tenure as mayor. “Connolly really symbolized all of those things and that is what made him very special to the neighborhood.”

Flynn also said the memorial and Connolly’s accomplishments both on and off the track are what make him such an important character to the youth of the neighborhood.

“It gives young people inspiration and hope that they can be anyone they want to be,” said Flynn, who still resides in South Boston. “You would say to yourself, ‘he’s a Southie guy and he’s like me and he made it’.”

But Connolly’s legacy also stretches across all of Boston and the United States, inspiring not only South Boston residents, but Americans of Irish descent everywhere.

“He was a great iconic figure coming out of South Boston,” said Michael Quinlin, president of the Boston Irish Tourism Association.

Quinlin explained how Connolly, who passed in 1957, was one of six Boston athletes going to the Olympics and just one of 14 Americans competing in the games, a stark contrast to the American athletic powerhouse of today.

“When they came back, they were heroes,” said Quinlin, who devoted a chapter to Connolly in his book, Irish Boston: A Lively Look at Boston’s Colorful Irish Past. “Connelly wrote in his memoirs that the most exciting part for him was returning to Southie for the party.”

While the majority of his counterparts were members of the Boston Athletic Association, Connolly hailed from the Suffolk Athletic Association and the Old Harbor Athletic Association, keeping his roots close to home.

What also set Connolly apart from his fellow competitors was his education.

Enrolled at Harvard before the games, Connolly tried to take a leave of absence, but was denied by Harvard, resulting in him dropping out.

Returning a victor, Harvard tried to get him back.

“Harvard tried to give him a degree and he gave him the back of his hand,” said Brian Mahoney, a member of the South Boston Historical Society. “He’s an example of pride that never quit.”

In the end though it won’t be his essays or service during the Spanish-American War that parents will tell their children stories of.

It will be about a man, an amateur athlete, and a South Boston resident that parents will explain to their children took the medals and showed the world that America and South Boston can compete and win on a world stage.

“We never had much growing up,” said Flynn. “And sports were the answer. You keep a kid in sports you keep them out of trouble and remind the kids that the dream of playing in the Olympics is not an illusion.”

Email Patrick D. Rosso, Follow him @PDRosso, or friend him on Facebook.

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