On the first day of competition at the Olympics in 1924, Lewiston native Bob Legendre took his spot behind a chalked line on the field of the Stade Olympique Yves-du-Manoir in Paris.

He wore boxy white shorts and a T-shirt with number 246 written across it.

Two years after graduating from Georgetown University, Legendre looked down the cinder track to the spot 40 meters away where he would leap as far as possible into the sand beyond.

In his storied career, which by then already included three national pentathlon titles, he had never jumped more than a tad farther than 24 feet before landing, his feet digging into the sand as he threw himself forward to prevent falling backward and losing ground.

Legendre knew he had three tries, with his longest jump the one that would count.

On his first one, he soared just shy of 24 feet, a good effort but short of what he hoped for.

His second leap took him more than an inch past 24 feet, a much better outcome.

Then came his third and final one.

Legendre eyed the mark down the field and began to race toward it, determined to best his previous efforts. At the line, he took off into the air.

Robert Legendre setting the long jump record on July 7, 1924, at the Olympics in Paris. Booth Family Center for Special Collections, Georgetown University Archives

His landing made him a legend.

That Monday at the Paris Olympics, in the first event of the men’s pentathlon, Legendre flew 25 feet, 6 inches — three inches farther than anyone had ever jumped before, more than a foot beyond his previous best mark.

When he set the new world’s record on July 7, 1924, he did it with the best athletes in the world watching in awe. One wire service called it “the most sensational performance” by any American in the Paris Olympics.

Bob Legendre competing in the pentathlon at the Paris Olympics in 1924. Lewiston Evening Journal

“Any leap of 25 feet is considered wonderful in track circles and in covering the added six inches the former Lewiston boy has leaped further than any other human being,” the Lewiston Evening Journal reported in its issue the same day.

In a headline the next morning, the Lewiston Daily Sun called the jump the “peak of (a) brilliant track career.”

What made it all the sweeter is that Legendre wasn’t even competing in the long jump. The gold medalist in that event posted a number well short of Legendre’s own.

The Lewiston native set the record at the start of the pentathlon, a five-sport “iron man” faceoff that kicked off with the long jump, the first event to follow the ceremonial parade of nations at the games.

Many commentators of the day regarded the pentathlon — which included throwing both the javelin and the discus, a 200-meter sprint, a 1,500-meter run and the broad jump — as the ultimate test of athletic prowess.

A LEWISTON BOYHOOD

To put it mildly, nobody could have imagined that Legendre would wind up touted as America’s best athlete, gracing the front pages of newspapers across the land and earning the sort of fame that only became possible with the advent of radio and mass media after World War I.

As the last of 13 children born in 1898 to immigrants living in the Little Canada section of Lewiston (also called The Island), Pierre Lucien Robert “Bob” Legendre had the odds stacked against him from day one.

His Quebec-born father, Gustav, a Lewiston police officer, died of stomach cancer when the boy was just 362 days old. The father may never have seen his son take a single step, let along a leap into history.

Legendre’s mother, Philomene, and older siblings, like so many others in those days, went to work in the mills to sustain the family.

In 1900, according to census data, three of Legendre’s’ sisters, ages 14, 19 and 20, worked in a cotton mill. His oldest brother, Arthur, 24, folded cloth in a bleachery and another brother labored in a shoe factory.

In 1908, they had moved and were living together in an apartment on Lisbon Street, close to the corner of Chestnut Street.

From early on, people noticed the boy had talent.

Starting from his early days at Frye Grammar School in Lewiston, where Legendre pitched for the baseball team and played on its 11-person gridiron football squad, coaches sought him out, perhaps the reason he was able to finish high school in an era when that was uncommon.

At Lewiston’s Jordan High School, which he attended from 1913 until 1917, Legendre played baseball, football and competed in track and field, setting local records in broad jump, high jump and shot put.

Because of his athletic talent, Legendre got the chance to take prep school courses in math and science at Hebron Academy, where he logged another year before college.

At Hebron, Legendre pitched for its baseball team, played tackle for its football team and set a broad jump record of 22 feet, 11 inches. He even did a little acting on the Hebron stage.

Robert Legendre’s draft registration card from 1918.

In the summer of 1918, after finishing at Hebron, Legendre lived with his family at 32 Horton St. in Lewiston, a three-decker apartment building the city tore down in 2017.

That summer of 1918, as a war raged in Europe, Legendre worked for the Texas Steam Co. in Bath, according to his World War I draft registration card. The registration noted that he was tall and slender with blue eyes and brown hair.

ON TO GEORGETOWN

Fortunately for Legendre, Georgetown University got him before the military could.

Legendre’s “blazing speed and size on the gridiron” at Hebron captured the attention of a coach at Georgetown, John O’Reilly, “who quickly put him on the track team,” Patrick McArdle, the current executive director of athletic relations at Georgetown, wrote on his blog “View from the Hilltop.”

That first year at the college in the nation’s capital, newspaper accounts said Legendre played halfback on the football team and then blew his arm out pitching, putting an end to his baseball career.

Track and field became his focus.

The summer after his freshman year, Legendre headed to Europe as a newly minted corporal in the Student Army Training Corps to participate in the Inter-Allied Games, a friendly competition among the war’s victors that included a raft of traditional sports plus one game to see who could throw a grenade the farthest.

Legendre, 21, emerged as the winner of the pentathlon at the games, attracting considerable attention as the world became aware of his athletic skill.

After Bob Legendre returned to Lewiston in August 1919 in the wake of his pentathlon victory at the Inter-Allied Games, his hometown honored him with a celebratory dinner, depicted in a newspaper cartoon. Lewiston Evening Journal

In 1919, Legendre also won the national American Amateur Association championship in the pentathlon, besting his peers on college squads around the country.

He returned to heaps of praise in Lewiston, including an awards ceremony where bigwigs hailed Legendre for two hours while he sat “in almost obvious embarrassment,” as the Lewiston Evening Journal recounted.

W.E. Sargent of Hebron Academy told the gathering that he found Legendre waiting outside his house when he went out to get his mail, wary of returning to the acclaim that waited for him in Lewiston.

Sargent said he had to talk Legendre into coming to the dinner in Lewiston because he dreaded the idea of people praising him. “He has a rare quality of modesty,” Sargent said.

Thomas Breen, the City Council president, said that in Legendre’s “old school days, we could sometimes picture him in our dreams as the champion of champions.”

Legendre said little.

“Words cannot express the feelings within me,” he told his hometown fans.

The following year, Legendre landed a spot on the U.S. Olympic team that went to Antwerp in the Netherlands, where he placed fourth overall.

In 1921 and 1922, Legendre again won the U.S. championships in the sport, wrapping up a college career that saw him become a staple of sports pages.

Columnist Norman Brown called him “America’s greatest all-around athlete” and nobody disputed it.

THE LURE OF HOLLYWOOD

Bob Legendre doing the long jump in a 1922 competition. Baltimore American

After his graduation in 1922, Legendre planned “to forsake the cinder path” in favor of the spotlights of Hollywood, as the Buffalo Express put it.

The 6-foot-1-inch-tall athlete had movie star looks and dreamed of making it big on the silver screen.

He told friends he turned down many offers from movie producers during his college years but was ready to explore the opportunities film presented.

But in the end, he appeared only briefly in a 1925 film about action in motion, showing off some athletic moves in footage that is scarce if it still exists at all.

Legendre decided instead to win a spot on the U.S. team for the Paris Olympics, which he easily secured in the pentathlon.

THE PARIS OLYMPICS

The U.S. State Department’s passport paperwork in 1924 asked applicants the reason for their anticipated travel.

“To compete in Olympic games” was Legendre’s oh-so-cool answer.

Bob Legendre’s graduation picture from Georgetown University. St. John Daily Capital, St. John, Kansas

The American team in 1924 included a handful of people who were not easily forgotten, including swimmer Johnny Weissmuller, who later starred as Tarzan in many movies, and Duke Kahananoku, the father of surfing.

Mort Kaer, another American pentathlon competitor in Paris, talked decades later to organizers of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics about his memories of a trip that must have been akin to the experiences of his teammates.

He said the 262 U.S. athletes boarded a large steamship, the America, for the journey and that “almost everyone was seasick but me.”

It contained boxing rings, tracks and more so the competitors could keep on training through the voyage. The swimmers ran out of luck, though, when the large canvas pool created on its deck burst, creating a small flood at sea, according to a wire service report.

The ship docked in Cherbourg two weeks before the opening ceremonies and athletes were quickly whisked away to Paris by train.

In Paris, Kaer said, they “stayed at this big, old chateau” and on one of the first nights there a Frenchman got electrocuted because of its many wiring problems. The athletes took up a collection for the man’s family, he recalled, and “everyone chipped in.”

Kaer remembered that athletes “went around in Olympic jackets” and that “everything was real inexpensive in Paris and your money went a long way.”

Postage stamps issued by France for the 1924 Olympics in France.

Kaer, who wound up in fifth place, had banked on winning the broad jump portion of the competition, but when Legendre flew as far as he did, “that hurt my chances.” It didn’t help that he also had an ulcerated tooth and had no idea how to throw a discus, he added.

Legendre did well in each round of the pentathlon except for tossing the javelin, where he placed seventh, sealing a third-place finish for a bronze medal. In 1920, he had tied for the third-place medal but lost a tiebreaker to come in fourth.

SOME SAY LEGENDRE DESERVED GOLD MEDAL

It’s a little complicated to explain the scoring process for the pentathlon during the early Olympics except to point out that it didn’t work well.

It more than sufficed in 1912, when American Jim Thorpe won four of the five events in the pentathlon to capture the gold medal. Nobody could dispute he deserved to win.

But it was less clear in 1920, when Legendre wound up in fourth place, and, to some, positively scandalous in 1924 when Legendre got a bronze medal and a Finnish athlete named Eero Reino Lehtonen secured the gold.

Bob Legendre in 1924 Lewiston Evening Journal

Lehtonen, who is remembered with a bronze statue in his hometown, did better than Legendre on average in the five events.

But to many, it seemed that smashing the world record in one of the events ought to count for more than Lehtonen squeaking out a narrow win in some of the other events.

Vasilis Grammaticos, writing for the online sports blog Rethinking Athletics, pointed out last year that if the Olympics had used the same scoring system for the pentathlon that it did for the decathlon — giving more points for more decisive wins in the events — Legendre would have won the gold medal by a big margin.

But nobody fussed about it at the time.

The Olympic Committee, however, did quietly kill the pentathlon competition after 1924, leaving in place a separate and different version of the pentathlon — called the “modern pentathlon” — that featured different events: fencing, freestyle swimming, equestrian show jumping and a cross-country race that includes pistol shooting.

ONLY A DOZEN MEN HAVE EVER HELD THE LONG JUMP RECORD

Whatever medal Legendre deserved, nothing can change the reality that since the start of the modern Olympics in 1896, only 12 men in history have held the record for the longest jump.

Legendre was the third record-holder, beating the mark set by Harvard University’s Edward Gourdin in 1921.

Legendre held the top spot for almost a year before DeHart Hubbard tacked on five additional inches to leave him behind.

The current world record, set in 1991, is held by Mike Powell, who traversed 29 feet 4 inches before returning to earth.

Only one other man came close to holding the record for as long as Powell, the immortal Jesse Owens, star of the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, who grabbed the long jump record in 1935 and held it until 1960.

A LIFE CUT SHORT

Legendre stayed at Georgetown long enough to earn a doctorate in dental surgery in 1927.

Fulfilling his service requirement, he became a lieutenant in the Naval Dental Corps and helped coach the Navy’s track team.

He married, and divorced, apparently without having any children.

Landing in a military hospital in Brooklyn in 1931 with bronchial pneumonia at the age of 33, he died there on Jan. 21.

Legendre is buried in St. Peter’s Cemetery on a hill near the Androscoggin River, one of the most accomplished men the city ever produced.

The Legendre family grave at St. Peter’s Cemetery in Lewiston. Steve Collins

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