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Wednesday, March 12, 2008 01:39 am

Abe the scrapper

Triathlon promoter claims Lincoln as the nation’s first multisport athlete

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Steve O’Connor heads up the Abraham Lincoln Triathlon Series in Petersburg and New Salem

Everyone knows Abraham Lincoln as the inspiring orator, the war hero, the Great Emancipator, but now a local sports group is billing the 6-foot-4-inch, 180-pound former president as something a bit different. Steve O’Connor, who is heading up the Abraham Lincoln Triathlon Series in Petersburg and New Salem this April and August, claims that Lincoln became the nation’s first multisport athlete in 1831 when he accepted a challenge to race, wrestle, and fight an opponent. “A lot of people don’t know, but he was kind of a scrapper,” O’Connor says. “He was a tough bird.”
O’Connor made the discovery earlier this year, he says, when he stumbled across a story about Lincoln’s youth in Carl Sandburg’s Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years and the War Years. In the second chapter, “New Salem Days,” Sandburg details a wrestling match between Lincoln and Jack Armstrong — the Clary’s Grove champion — that purportedly took place in New Salem in 1831. When it appeared that neither man would outdo the other, Sandburg writes, they agreed to a draw.
O’Connor points to what Sandburg says next as his crucial evidence:
The Clary’s Grove boys, it was told, had decided to see what stuff Abe had in him. First, he was to run a foot race with a man from Wolf. “Trot him out,” said Abe. Second, he was to wrestle with a man from Little Grove. “All right,” said Abe. Third, he must fight a man from Sand Ridge. “Nothing wrong about that,” said Abe. The foot racer from Wolf couldn’t pass Abe. The man from Little Grove, short and heavy, stripped for action, ran at Abe like a battering-ram. Abe stepped aside, caught his man by the nape of the neck, threw him heels over head, and gave him a fall that nearly broke the bones. A committee from the boys came up and told him, “You have sand in your craw and we will take you into our crowd.”

Organizers of the Abraham Lincoln Triathlon Series have since adopted the story as their hook, O’Connor says, inviting athletes to central Illinois to continue the evolution of multisport. The group has even notified major triathlon magazines across the country, he adds, of the possibility that multisport began much earlier than the first reported triathlon, held at San Diego’s Mission Bay in 1974. “This is huge,” O’Connor says. “We can shake the triathlon world with this.”
The Illinois Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission officially endorsed the triathlon series last month, coordinator Kay Smith says, not only to support efforts to bring visitors to New Salem and to experience Lincoln’s connection to Petersburg but also “to help expose new visitors to the history of Lincoln in the area of the triathlon.”
The Abraham Lincoln Triathlon Series will feature four main events: Abe’s Mini Triathlon and the Pioneer Sprint Triathlon, held on April 19, and the Stovepipe Sprint Triathlon and the Railsplitter Triathlon, held on Aug. 23. Go to www.abestriseries.com for more information.

Contact Amanda Robert at arobert@illinoistimes.com.
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