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Harold Connolly

Harold Connolly atop the podium at the 1956 Olympic Games

Harold Vincent Connolly

  • Nickname: Hal
  • Date of Birth: August 1, 1931
  • Date of Death: August 18, 2010
  • Personal Best: 71.26 meters (223’9″) on June 20, 1965
  • Athletic Accomplishments:
    • 1956 Olympic Gold Medalist
    • Four-time Olympian (1956, 1960, 1964, 1968)
    • Six-time World Record Holder. Held the world record without interruption from 1956 to 1965.

Harold Vincent Connolly, Jr. was born in Somerville, Massachusetts in 1931 to working-class Irish-American parents.  At twelve-and-a-half pounds, he set the record for the heaviest baby born at Somerville Hospital.  His size caused his left shoulder to be dislocated at birth, crushing his brachial plexus nerves.   He struggled with the injury throughout his childhood, fracturing his left arm thirteen times.   By adulthood, he had a left arm that four-and-a-half inches shorter than his right and a left hand two-thirds the size of his right.

With a family entrenched in the boxing community, Connolly was never far from athletics.   He discovered that weight lifting could help him overcome his weak left arm in his early teens and excelled at the shot put and football in high school.

After high school, Connolly attended Boston College, where he walked on to the track and field team and helped the hammer throwers retrieve hammers.  Before long, Harold was throwing the hammers back to the team’s throwers farther than their throws into the field.

After graduating from Boston College in 1953, Harold continued throwing the hammer with a dream of competing at the Olympic Games.  He continued to progress and qualified for his first Olympic team in 1956.  Just before leaving for Melbourne, Connolly shocked the world and became a surprise medal hopeful after setting a world record in Los Angeles.  The favorite, however, remained Mikhail Krivonosov, who had set six world records in the three years leading into the Games and improved the world record by five meters.

On the day of the hammer final in Melbourne, Connolly trailed Krivonosov until the fifth round.  Psyched by watching the United States take a dramatic first and second in the 800-meter run, Connolly threw 6 inches better than Krivonosov.  It was good enough for the win and Connolly found himself above two Soviets on the podium.  After receiving the gold medal, the press called for him to raise his hands above his head, which he was unable to do.  He later said, “In my greatest moment of accomplishment, the old pain of embarrassment and humiliation engulfed me.  All my life I had wanted to raise my two arms above my head.  I had sometimes even dreamed I could do it.  How natural to raise one’s arms in victory, and how much I wanted to do it, but I knew I could not raise my left arm.  I quickly shot my right hand above my head and waved.”

Connolly’s gold medal was not the only headline he made at the Olympics.  There he met Olga Fikotova, a Czech discus thrower who also won gold at the Games.  The romance and marriage of Olympic champions from the U.S. and communist Czechoslovakia at the height of the Cold War captivated the world.

Connolly went on to make three more Olympic teams and hold the world record for nearly a decade. During his athletic career, he was instrumental in fighting the oppressive amateur restrictions on athletes and was among a handful of white athletes who supported the U.S. team’s black athletes during protests at the 1968 Games made famous by Tommy Smith’s and John Carlos’s black power salute.

Harold and Olga’s marriage ended in 1974 after nearly twenty years and four children.   Soon after, Harold married Pat Winslow, herself a three-time Olympian and ten-time national champion in 800 meters and the pentathlon.   Together they had two more children and remained married until his death in 2010.

Harold working as the executive director of Special Olympics in 1993.

After his long athletic career, Connolly worked as an English teacher and administrator in the Santa Monica, California public schools.  He later moved his family to the Washington D.C. area, where he took a job as Director of U.S. Programs for Special Olympics.   He continued to coach college and elite hammer throwers during this time as an assistant track coach at Georgetown University.    After retiring from his job with the Special Olympics in 1999, Harold turned his attention to youth hammer throwing.   It had been nearly 50 years since his gold medal and the United States had won only one Olympic medal since, a silver in 1996.

Harold fought to change this as the youth hammer throw coordinator for USA Track & Field (USATF), track and field’s national governing body.  He toured the country teaching coaches about the event and mentoring young athletes, worked with the USATF to add the hammer throw as an official youth event and started a fund to support talented young throwers.

His efforts to promote youth hammer throwing over the past decade helped the event to spread from Rhode Island, where it has long been a sanctioned high school event, to communities across the country.  In 2000, the national rankings listed just 5 high school boys over 200 feet and 19 over 175 feet.  By 2010, there were 17 boys over 200 feet and 51 over 175 feet and the number of girls throwing over 140 feet tripled from 12 to 36 during the same period.  Youth hammer throwers mentored by Connolly won the 2008 and 2010 World Junior Championships—the first world titles in the event at any level since Connolly’s 1956 gold medal.

Harold died unexpectedly after collapsing from an exercise bike at a gym in August 2010. His death elicited reactions from around the country as those he helped and inspired during his life felt a deep loss.