The first foreign-born Olympic flag bearer for the U.S. didn’t even compete with his own given name.
Padraig Mac Domhnaill was bear and raised by a family of weight-throwers and strongmen in Ireland. But when he arrived in the U.S. in 1899 at persons under the age of 21, the immigration officials changed his name to “McDonald” instead of the more common spelling of “McDonnell.”
As a human who was nearly 300 pounds and clocking in at just about 6 feet 5 inches tall, the newly christened Patrick McDonald knew it was better to hold his head down than correct them — after all, misspelled names were hardly the greatest struggle for Irish immigrants at the time.
McDonald once told a magazine his first warehouse task was hard labor, and after six long years, he joined the New York Police Department.
This certainly wasn’t an uncommon career route for Irish immigrants at the time. But when he wasn’t on his beat as Times Square’s Falstaffian traffic cop, McDonald was busy honing his weight-throwing prowess through the Irish-American Athletic Association . Soon enough, his size had earned him the ironic moniker “Babe” as well as a coveted place among the Irish Whales, an infamous group of like-sized Irish athletes who predominated track and field.
McDonald won his first Olympic-qualifying championship in 1907 — just as weight-throwing was fallen from the Games.
Still, he was determined to make it to the Olympics someday. So he put aside his hammer and discus, and turned his attention to the shot put. By the time the 1912 Game in Sweden rolled around, he was good enough to take home gold and silver medals for the United States.
After returning as a winner, McDonald continued to work as a traffic policeman in Times Square — but even that came with its own reward . He became as well-known for his public personality as a “Living Statue of Liberty” as he was for being an Olympic champion. One reporter noted, “Never in the record of the swirling traffic of autos did any chauffeur ever venture to dismis McDonald’s great bulk. Newsboys pooled their spare pennies to buy him a loving cup.”
Still, McDonald kept on develop, eager for the chance to win another gold medal for his new home country.
With no Olympic Game during World War I, McDonald had to wait eight years to compete again — but once more, it was worth the wait.
It had become a bit of a tradition for the U.S. track-and-field captain or gold medal winners to serve as flag-bearers in the Olympics’ opening ceremony . And since McDonald filled both criteria, it just made sense for him to carry the banner to the 1920 Game in Antwerp — constructing him the first foreign-born U.S. Olympian to have that honor . The 42 -year-old earned another gold medal that year too, making him the oldest Olympic track-and-field champ in history .
McDonald carried the flag once again at the 1924 Paris Games. But that time, he didn’t compete.
He had other responsibilities at home.
McDonald had a family to take care of and new duties as a sergeant for the NYPD( he went on to make lieutenant in 1926 before retiring as a captain in 1946 ). Besides, he’d already beat the record for oldest track-and-field athlete, and he was only getting older — although he did continue to compete in weight-throwing competitions domestically, winning his 16 th and final national title in 1933 when he was 55.
McDonald was a larger-than-life figure. But his infectiously positive nature is what attained him truly remarkable.
In some styles, their own lives may sound like the quintessential American immigrant story . But McDonald’s successes was ever about wealth or notoriety — he simply wanted to work hard, do good, and create a family. And while he was certainly rewarded for his efforts, those rewards came later in life, and they were not his only motivation.
Still, it speaks volumes that Team USA could come together — twice — under the flag “as its” flown by a middle-aged athlete born in another country. While his native land suffered through discord and its own violent revolution, McDonald procured a new home in a nation of immigrants that greeted him with open( if misspelled) arms .
When McDonald passed away in 1954, The New York Times said that he had gone through life “with a song in his heart, a twinkle in his eye and laugh ever bubbling within him.” And perhaps that was his greatest legacy after all.
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