Harold Connolly was born with only one functioning arm. Because of that he had to fight to be accepted, so he worked harder than everyone else. He became such a fierce competitor in the hammer throw that he won a gold medal in the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, Australia.
He was the first American to throw more than 200 feet and broke the world record for the hammer throw seven times over ten years, starting with 218 feet, 10 inches in 1956 and ending with 233 feet 9 inches in 1965. He won nine United States titles in the hammer throw and three in the indoor 35-pound weight throw. He competed in four Olympics and was still a top national competitor into his late fifties.
His Arm Was Broken During Birth
Hal was born Aug. 1, 1931, in Somerville, MA and raised in Brighton, MA. When he was born, his left arm was broken and the nerves controlling that arm were damaged. There was no procedure to mend the severed nerves in 1931, so his left arm did not develop properly and was four inches shorter than his right arm. He desperately wanted to be accepted as a normal boy so he participated in competitive sports, particularly football and wrestling. To pass the physical exam to compete in sports, he hid his left arm from the doctors. He ended up breaking his withered arm 13 times during childhood, once while jumping from one roof top to the next on his paper route. After winning the Olympic gold medal, photographers asked him to raise his arms as a gesture of victory. He was able to lift only his right arm. Overcome with that embarrassment, he had to be prompted by his Soviet competitor to face the American flag for the national anthem.
He Wanted to Be the Best Hammer Thrower in the World
He went to Boston College and tried to play football and throw the shot put. One day, he was watching the hammer throwers and retrieved a hammer thrown by one of the athletes. Even though he had no experience in throwing the hammer, he threw the hammer back to the thrower much further than it was thrown to him and a new career was born. He found out very quickly that he had a real talent for hammer throwing and decided that he was going to be the best. The hammer is a 16-pound metal ball attached to a handle by a wire and a handle that together is almost four feet long. The athlete spins three or four times in a ring and then releases the hammer to send it as far away as he can. He believed that strength was more important than technique, so he increased his weight lifting program and tried to lift heavier and heavier weights, eventually being able to squat more than 800 pounds. He weighed 260 pounds (mostly solid muscle) and was considered one of the strongest men in the world but at 5 feet 11 inches tall, he was one of the shortest hammer throwers. He was also the only hammer thrower in the world ever who had only one useful arm. Other athletes throw the hammer with both arms.
He was graduated from Boston College in 1953 and enrolled in the master’s of education program at Boston University where he attended a class with Martin Luther King, Jr. He worked with BU track coach Ed Flanagan and Bob Backus, a 1952 Olympic hammer thrower who trained at BU. Connolly and Backus toured Europe together one summer, competing in as many hammer-throwing events as they could find.
His First World Record was Not Recorded
The Boston winters were really cold and the only indoor facility to practice his throwing was at Harvard University, where I met him in 1954 while I was a member of the track team. One day, I came down to Harvard Stadium and heard that Hal Connolly had thrown the hammer through a car door in the parking lot. The Track coach at Harvard, Bill McCurdy, told us that if he really did that, he had to have thrown the hammer well beyond the current world record. I asked Hal about the incident and he told me: “The guy who owned the car was really mad at me and wanted to call the police right away. I told him, ‘The heck with the police, get a tape measure and get the exact measurement of the distance.'” Soon afterwards he set the official world record at 218 feet 10 inches.
He Willed Himself to be the Best
Hal was incredibly determined to be the best hammer thrower in the world. He knew he had to beat the defending world champion, Mikhail Krivonosov of Russia as they traded world records in the hammer prior to the Olympics. He pasted a photo of Krivonosov on the visor of his car and looked at it every time he got into his car.
In Melbourne, Harold proved to be a master of the “psych games” when he showed up at a training facility just after the Soviets finished. Disheartened when he saw the divots made by the hammers of the Soviet’s practice throws were several feet ahead of his own marks, he decided to walk out a few feet beyond the Soviet marks and slam his hammer several times to make them think, when they returned the next day, that he had bettered their distances. It worked! None of the competitors threw his best mark at the Olympic competition and Harold won with a toss of 207 feet, 3 inches to win the gold medal.
A Wedding with Worldwide Attention
While at the Games, Hal Connolly met and fell in love with Olga Fikotova of Czechoslovakia, who won the gold medal in the discus. This was the height of the cold war and Czechoslovakian citizens were not allowed to marry people from the West. It took a personal intervention on the part of President Eisenhower to get the Czechoslovak president, Antonín Zápotocký, to allow Hal to marry the Czechoslovakian hero. They were married in three ceremonies attended by 40,000 people. Their witnesses were another couple, Emil Zátopek and Dana Zátopková who had won 4 gold medals between them in the same Olympics. Hal and Olga were divorced 17 years later in 1974.
In 1975, Hal married Pat Winslow, who was a three-time American Olympic athlete. She set 15 American records in the half mile, the pentathlon and long jump, and was the winner of 13 National championship titles and the gold medalist in the pentathlon at the Pan-American games. She became a coach and her women’s track and field team at UCLA won the National Championship in 1977. She coached several Olympians including Evelyn Ashford, the 1984 Olympic champion and world-record holder in the 100 meter run.
Hal and Pat became our close friends when we all lived in the DC area, and we often rode tandem bicycles together. One day we sat in a crowded movie theater to see a movie, “Immortal Beloved,” about the life of Beethoven. When they showed the Cathedral in Prague, Hal startled everyone in the theater by blurting out loudly: “That’s where I was married.” Pat responded: “Not to me.”
He Dominated His Sport
Hal completed his master’s degree at UCLA and was a high school teacher and vice principal in Santa Monica, CA for 30 years. In 1988, he began eleven years as the executive director of Special Olympics. He coached young athletes and served as the Junior Hammer Development Chairman for the U.S. Track and Field Association. He was one of the leading promoters for the next generation of hammer throwers. Two world junior champions in the hammer throw were Americans coached by Hal Connolly. He created a website to help promote the hammer throw, Hammerthrow.org.
Harold expanded the sport of hammer throwing by establishing an American youth movement and United States of America Track and Field Grants program for the Hammer Throw. He coached several Olympians. One son, Jim Connolly was the N.C.A.A. decathlon champion for U.C.L.A. in 1987, and another, Adam Connolly, was America’s third-ranked hammer thrower in 1999. Two of his daughters won college scholarships to play volleyball: Merja was captain of UCLA National Championship team in 1986 and Shannon played at Columbia University in 1997-98. He mentored the Japanese athlete Koji Murofushi, who threw 272.01 feet and won the Olympic hammer throw at Athens in 2004.
Three of Hal’s very close friends, Parry O’Brien, Al Oerter and Bob Backus, were also Olympians and world record holders in throwing events. They all competed at a world-class level into their 50’s and beyond.
• Bob Backus – Former world record holder in the hammer throw who continued to compete in the hammer throw into later life and, at age 51, came in second in the 35-pound weight throw at the AAU National Indoor Championships held at Madison Square Garden.
• Al Oerter, Jr. – Won four straight Olympic gold medals in the discus and competed at a world class level into his 50’s. He had his farthest throw of 227.9 feet at age 43, and, in that year while filming for a TV segment, he unofficially threw what would have been a world record 245 feet (75 m). He continued to compete in age-group competition and at age 61 threw 204 feet which was a world class distance. The guy who came in second threw 120 feet.
• Parry O’Brien – Competed in four consecutive Summer Olympics and won two gold medals (1952, 1956) and one silver medal (1960). He put a six kilogram shot 58’1½ ” (17.72 m) at age 50 in 1984, which is two feet farther than the listed American Masters record in his age division. He was first to put the 16-pound shot more than 60 feet, broke the world record in the shot 17 times, won 116 consecutive meets in the shot put and won 18 Amateur Athletic Union championships. O’Brien took up swimming in the 1990s after back surgery made it too painful for him to throw.
On August 18, 2010, at age 79, Hal Connolly was taking his usual extremely vigorous workout, riding an exercise bike in the gym. He passed out and fell off the bike, hitting his head on the concrete floor. He died of a brain injury before he got to the hospital.
August 1, 1931 – August 18 2010