Athletic Presidents

Athletic Presidents

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While it's hard to measure Washington's athleticism by today's standards, his impressive shows of strength and dexterity are well documented.

The father of our country led many successful military campaigns, was called the best horseback rider in the United States, and excelled in sports such as rock throwing and pitching the iron bar (an early form of javelin).

His abilities might have been related to his impressive size. Washington stood an imposing 6'2" and weighed an estimated 220 pounds. The average height of a man in his 20's in Washington's timeranged from 5' 4" to 5' 7".


While your average American today feels lucky to fit in 30 minutes at the gym, Thomas Jefferson allotted two hours each day for fresh air and exercise.

Jefferson's descriptions of his jaunts through his estate sound like a walking meditation (minus the gun he carried along).

"The object of walking is to relax the mind," he wrote to his nephew Peter Carr in 1785. "You should therefore not permit yourself even to think while you walk; but divert yourself by the objects surrounding you. Walking is the best possible exercise." Jefferson believed that a "strong body makes the mind strong."

When he gave up his walks at the age of 84, he turned to daily horseback riding.

Wikimedia Commons/George Peter Alexander Healy

Each day, John Quincy Adams would wake around 5 a.m., strip naked and swim nude in the Potomac River.

A popular story tells how his skinny dipping habit resulted in the first presidential interview for a female reporter. Aware of Adams' daily routine, journalist Ann Royall headed out to the Potomac one morning where she sat on the president's clothes until he agreed to talk.

In addition to his swims, Adams also walked, rode horses, and shot billiards. He installed the first pool table in the White House.

Wikimedia Commons/Ralph Eleaser Whiteside Earl

Anyone who has ever tried to fire a 12-gauge can attest that shooting can be hard work. In fact, shooting has been a competitive sport since the 1800's.

But Andrew Jackson took it to the next level.

Jackson loved to shoot not at clay pigeons or targets, but at other men. This live-wire president got his heart pounding through the duels he so loved. Although no one is sure how many duels Jackson took part in, the estimates range from five to somewhere over one hundred. His most famous fight was against Charles Dickinson in 1806. Dickinson had accused Jackson of cheating on a horse race bet and then insulted his wife.

Given the hand-eye coordination and control required for Jackson to survive these encounters, we'd argue that he was at the top of his game.


When it comes to sports, Roosevelt was a jack of all trades. He practiced wrestling, tennis, boxing, rowing, jiu jitsu and horseback riding. He could harpoon a fish or kill a charging bull elephant at 40 yards.He was also said to enter into any local sporting opportunity with enthusiasm.

Although he did many of these activities for fun, Roosevelt sometimes did them just to prove a point. When he heard army cavalrymen's complaints about riding 25 miles a day for training, the president rode for 100 miles straight. He was 51 at the time.

Roosevelt's enthusiasm for sports (and willingness to get pounded while playing) remain unparalleled. While President Obama may invite former NBA players to his court, he'd probably never invite George Foreman for a boxing match. Roosevelt, on the other hand, invited numerous champion fightersincluding boxers, wrestlers and martial artiststo the White House for sparring.

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Although he never succeeded in tackling Jim Thorpe, Eisenhower still excelled as the linebacker and fullback on West Point's football team. Before starting college, he helped Abilene High School's baseball team go undefeated in 1909 as their center fielder. While in the White House, Eisenhower founded the President's Council on Youth Fitness and was an avid golfer.

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In August 1943, John F. Kennedy proved his athleticism to the world. When his boat was ripped in half by the Japanese destroyer Amagiri in World War II, Kennedy (despite his bad back) swam three miles to safety with an injured crewman. He did so by holdingonto his friend's life jacket strap with his teeth.

In his best years, Kennedy played on the Harvard football and swim team. By the time he became president, however, chronic back pain due to injuries incurred during his military service kept Kennedy from many activities. Nevertheless, he still enjoyed golf, tennis and sailing.

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Gerald Ford is the only professional athlete or NCAA champion to be elected president.

While at the University of Michigan, Ford played starting center on two national championship football teams and was even team MVP in 1934. The Green Bay Packers and Detroit Lions offered him contracts, but Ford chose the more lucrative path of Yale Law School. (Football was not the high-paying job in the 1930's that it is today.)

While at the White House, Ford was known for his daily use of the presidential swimming pool.

Wikimedia Commons/AJ Guel

George H.W. Bush is a model for staying active. In his younger years, he was the captain and starting first baseman for Yale—the team he helped lead to the College World Series. Throughout his life, he has been an avid fisherman, tennis and golfer. And, on his 85th birthday, he celebrated with a skydive.


When George W. Bush took the mound to throw the first pitch of Game 3 of the 2001 World Series, the United States desperately needed a morale boost.

Less than two months after the 9/11 attacks, the country was still reeling. Bush wound up and, to the delight of the crowd, threw a perfect strike. The pitch was hailed as the greatest sports moment by a president.

Lesser known is the fact that Bush completed a marathon at the age of 46 and installed a treadmill on Air Force One. Years later, he was still able to run a mile in less than seven minutes. And, at the age of 55, he could bench 185 for five reps.

Also an avid mountain biker, every spring he hosts the W100K, a 100-kilometer (62-mile) ride across Texas desertlands with 20 servicemen and women wounded in the line of duty. We've never been, but we're told Bush is quite the mountain goat.

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President Obama may take the prize for the most active president as an encumbant. In his first three years, he played more golf than George W. Bush managed in two terms. He also famously put the White House basketball courts to good use with his weekly pickup games with former professional and college players. Obama himself was the highest scorer for the team at Occidental College in 1979.

To support his health (and also his game), Obama does cardio and weight training several times a week. And lets not forget the native-Hawaiian's love of body surfing.

Athletic Presidents