Born in 1900, Lake Placid’s Charles Jewtraw never dreamed of someday being an Olympic champion, especially because there were no Olympic Winter Games until 1924. But as fate would have it, not only did he become an Olympic champion but the first ever in the Winter Games.
The first modern day Olympic Games took place in 1896, but it took another 30 years for the winter competition to begin in Chamonix, France. Even then, they weren’t referred to as the Olympic Winter Games, instead called the “Winter Sports Week,” until 1926.
In Chamonix, 16 nations competed in 16 events including bobsled, curling, ice hockey, skating and Nordic skiing. The 23 year-old took home the United States’ only gold medal and his win surprised no one.
Prior to the Games, Jewtraw had already established himself as one of the world’s top speed skaters. As a junior, he claimed the American championships and never lost a race while in his class. During the 1919 Eastern championships, on his home track in Lake Placid, he won every heat he skated, something no other had ever accomplished.
Just two years later, Jewtraw won his first of two national titles. During the 1923 national championships, he won the 100 yard event in a record time of 9.4 seconds.
Almost 300 athletes took part in the January 25, 1924 opening ceremony and just one day later, Jewtraw competed in the Winter Olympics’ first-ever event, the 500-meter speed skating race. Lining up against 27 competitors from 10 countries to include Norway’s Roald Larson, who eventually won five medals at the Games, Jewtraw captured gold and etched his name in Olympic lore with a personal best time of 44 seconds.
He raced twice more the following day and posted two more personal best times. In the 1,500-meter race, he clocked 2:31.6 en route to an eighth place result, while in the 5,000-meter event he placed 13th with a time of 9:27.0.
Jewtraw never sought personal fame or glory after the Games. As a matter-of-fact he retired and never raced internationally again. Instead, he moved to New York City and worked as a representative for the A.C. Spaulding Sporting Good Company.
He wed a woman named Natalie who passed away in Palm Beach, Florida, exactly 72 years after his historic day.
While Jewtraw is the Lake Placid region’s first Olympian and medalist, he certainly isn’t the last. In fact, he blazed a trail in which at least one resident of the upstate New York area has competed in Alpine skiing, bobsled, hockey, luge, Nordic skiing or skeleton in every Olympic Winter Games including . Several of these athletes have won medals.
Jewtraw’s medal is displayed in the Museum of American History at the Smithsonian Institute.
Visitors to the Lake Placid region can learn more about Jewtraw, as well as other speed skating legends, with a visit to the Lake Placid Olympic Museum. The Museum, located in the Olympic Center, recently opened a permanent exhibit, Quest for Speed. The exhibit explores a speed skater’s quest for speed at the Olympic Games and what it takes to attain their goals. The exhibit showcases Jewtraw, Jeanne Ashworth, Valentine Bialas, Bonnie Blair, Eric Heiden, Apolo Ohno and Jack Shea.
Charles Henry Jewtraw was born on May 5, 1900 in Harkness, NY. During his speed skating career, he was a member of the Lake Placid Speed Skating Club and is best remebered for winning the first gold medal at the inaugural Winter Olympics in 1924. Charles passed away on January 26, 1996 in Palm Beach, FL.