Jack Whitman poses with his Paralympic medals, trophy and bow. Both photos were provided by the Jack Whitman Family and the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Museum.
When Jack Whitman won the first-ever Paralympic gold medal for the U.S. on Sept. 20, 1960, little did he know the Paralympic Games would one day become the world’s third largest sporting event.
“He would be so thrilled and proud,” said his sister Nancy Ford, reflecting on how far the Paralympic Movement has come in the 60 years since her brother won the wheelchair archery title in Rome.
Those first Paralympic Games included 400 athletes from 23 countries competing in 57 medal events across eight sports. The first medalist in Rome, Whitman, who passed away in 2004, is now known as the “father of wheelchair archery.”
Raised on a farm in central Illinois, Whitman had an accident in 1949 while competing for the University of Illinois gymnastics team, breaking his neck and becoming a quadriplegic. After 27 weeks in the hospital, he spent a year and a half back at his family’s farm before deciding to take charge of his life and see what he could still accomplish.
“He was a very determined person, very optimistic and upbeat,” Ford said. “At that period of time, there weren’t services and resources to guide you on how to address this change in your life. He learned about the rehab program that was just being initiated by Tim Nugent and went back to the University of Illinois and got involved in sports.”
Whitman tried everything he could muster the energy for — from wheelchair football to wheelchair basketball. Athletics had been his life, and he wanted that to continue.
But, according to his sister, their mother had become quite protective of him.
“My mother had been very focused on nurturing Jack, keeping him well and keeping harm from coming to him,” she said. “We went to this wheelchair basketball game and it was brutal. They were falling out of their chairs, and when Jack fell out of his chair onto the court my mother was beside herself. But this was his new world, and he was thriving in it.”
In 1960, a neighbor introduced Whitman to archery one day, bringing a bow and arrow over to let him have a go.
“When he took it up and liked it, he just kept working at it until he excelled,” Ford said.
He went on to win gold that same year. There were only three wheelchair archery competitors in Whitman’s discipline — classified as the Men’s Windsor Round Open at the Paralympic Games in Rome, and with a score of 800, he took home the title on his 30th birthday. But Whitman wasn’t done, also taking the gold medal in the Men’s FITA Round Open over two competitors from the United Kingdom.
There is a letter in the recently-opened United States Olympic & Paralympic Museum today that Whitman sent to his late wife, Jan, on AirMail stationary which shares the news of his victory in Rome and how he celebrated his win and his birthday together at a party thrown for him across the hall from where he was staying.
“It seems kind of archaic today,” Ford said, in reference to how a Paralympian would celebrate winning gold before the invention of mobile phones, the internet or social media. “It was all new, too. No one knew much about the Paralympics.
“But it inspired him to keep going. He kept going — winning, breaking records and then breaking his own records.”
Whitman went on to win gold again at the Tokyo 1964 Paralympic Games and then worked as a sales manager for a local radio station in Champaign, Illinois.
Sixty years later, while Whitman may no longer be with us, his legacy certainly his. His alma mater is now a U.S. Paralympics Training Site hosting some of the best athletes in the world and the U.S. sits atop the all-time Summer Paralympics medals table with 2,175 pieces of hardware.
His victory in Rome certainly made an impact.