In the spirit of stats such as WAR, VORP and others sabermetric breakdowns, the PAS -- President Athlete Score -- was created to determine the Most Athletic U.S. President. Teddy Roosevelt placed in the top 5 overall, but his devotion to the martial arts was one of his distinguishing achievements. Here's a closer look at the man who was president from 1901 to 1909, and then made another run for the Oval Office in 1912 on the ticket of the Bull Moose Party.
When most presidents take a beating, they do it in the headlines, not in a headlock. Teddy Roosevelt preferred the literal version. During his political career, he voluntarily subjected himself to a staggering number of brutal sparring sessions with championship-caliber fighters. Boxers; wrestlers; martial artists -- it didn't matter to Roosevelt. If they'd be willing to punch him in the face or pin him to the ground, he'd take them on. He felt it was the only way he could maintain his "natural body prowess." Imagine Barack Obama having Sugar Shane Mosley over to the White House Gym for some heavy bag work and shadow boxing; or George W. Bush rolling around an Oval Office octagon with Brock Lesnar. That's the level of commitment we're talking about with Roosevelt. And this obsession started long before he was elected president.
While Roosevelt was governor of New York, he found out that the American middleweight wrestling champion was training in Albany. The instant he heard the news, he summoned the wrestler to the Governor's Mansion. After a short conversation, the wrestler agreed to come over three or four afternoons a week to train him. Roosevelt, who was in his early 40s at the time (nearly double the age of the wrestler), looked forward to his training sessions so much that he eventually bought a wrestling mat for the workout room. While neither combatant had a problem with the wrestling mat, Roosevelt's Comptroller did, and he refused to audit the bill for the mat, claiming that wrestling wasn't "proper Gubernatorial amusement."
The Comptroller suggested a billiards table, but unless Roosevelt was going to learn how to sword fight with the pool cues, it appeared he wasn't interested in the stationary sport. When the wrestler had to leave Albany, he felt bad that Roosevelt wouldn't have anybody to spar with, so he volunteered a friend who was a professional oarsman. During his second training session with the oarsman, Roosevelt caved in the poor guy's ribs and then suffered his own shoulder injury. With both of the men bloodied and bruised, they decided it might not be best for the Governor of New York to look like he was squaring off against Bill the Butcher every other day. Once Roosevelt recovered, he went back to his first love: Boxing.
Roosevelt's boxing career began the same way Mike Tyson's did: With an ass-kicking at the hands of bullies. Tyson had a speech impediment. Roosevelt had asthma. Both afflictions made these future pugilists appear weak and ripe for bullying. In Tyson's case, he learned early on that he was born with cinder blocks for fists and that he could punch his way through the young boys who would taunt him. Eventually, the taunting stopped, and the cheering began.
Roosevelt wasn't born with a natural ability to fend for himself. In fact, he was born the opposite. As a child, he was more like Samuel L. Jackson's Mr. Glass in "Unbreakable" than the eventual Rough Rider he would become. Here's how the future president describes himself as a child in his autobiography: "Having been a sickly boy, with no natural bodily prowess ... I was at first quite unable to hold my own when thrown into contact with other boys of rougher antecedents. I was nervous and timid."
And here's how he describes the first real beating he took: "Having an attack of asthma, I was sent off by myself to Moosehead Lake. On the stage-coach ride ... I encountered a couple of other boys who were about my own age ... They found that I was a foreordained and predestined victim, and industriously proceeded to make life miserable for me. The worst feature was that when I finally tried to fight them I discovered that either singly could not only handle me with easy contempt, but handle me so as not to hurt me and yet to prevent my doing any damage whatever in return."
In short, they toyed with the future president. This incident scarred Roosevelt and he resolved that day to do something about it. Shortly after returning from his trip, he asked his father's permission to learn how to box. His dad set him up with ex-prizefighter John Long and Roosevelt's love affair with the sweet science began.
Roosevelt began his training with little natural ability, but he was eager to learn and practiced hard. After a few months, Long entered him into a tournament in the lightweight division and to everyone's surprise, he won.
The competition wasn't top flight, and the title didn't lead to any future belts, but the experience stayed with Roosevelt and he boxed throughout his college career at Harvard. He was never a champion (even though he sparred with champions), but he was always game to fight and he made it to the finals of a recreational tournament once.
While Roosevelt's boxing career wasn't illustrious, it allowed for the rarest of opportunities: The chance for a normal guy to cold cock the leader of the free world without any repercussions. One such incident involving a young artillery captain ultimately led to Roosevelt retiring from the sport for good. The event happened during a sparring session in the middle of his presidency. Once again, TR found himself in the squared circle with a man almost half his age. After holding his own for several rounds, the president missed landing a left hook on his opponent, and the young captain "cross countered [the president] on the eye, smashing the little blood vessels."
Roosevelt's eye never healed properly, which meant the punch signaled the end of our most storied presidential pugilist's career.
Leave it to Teddy Roosevelt to take a simple tennis club and turn it into a precursor to the Ironman Triathlon. The "Tennis Cabinet" began early in Roosevelt's presidency as a group of men who, as the name would suggest, played tennis with the president in the afternoons. The crew started out innocently enough, but it wasn't long before TR decided that smacking a ball over a net with a racket for a few hours was tedious. Not only that, there was almost no risk for serious injury, which meant the thrill-seeking president wasn't getting his much needed adrenaline rush to balance out the boring hours he had to log running the United States.
Pretty soon, the daily tennis sessions were replaced by what Roosevelt called "rough, cross-country walks," which would be like describing the Iditarod as a nice sleigh ride.
In fact, these "walks" were nothing of the sort; they were obstacle courses whose main goal was to push each man close to his physical limit. Some days they'd hike down to the bottom of Rock Creek in Washington, D.C. and others they'd trek across the Potomac River. The way they kept things interesting was to look at a map and randomly decide on a destination to hike to from the White House. They'd make a point of not researching whether there were any obstacles or bodies of water in the way and they'd head out with the goal to not veer from the straight line to their destination for any reason.
This led to some hairy scuffling down river beds, hikes over mountains, rock climbing, and perhaps most insanely of all, swimming across half-frozen rivers in the early spring and late fall. As if auditioning for a pre-Discovery Channel President v. Wild, our Bear Grylls-esque Commander-in-Chief often bragged that the routes he picked on these "rough cross-country walks" would force the men to swim through Rock Creek while "ice was floating thick upon it." "Once I invited an entire class of officers who were attending lectures at the War College to come on one of these walks," Roosevelt says in his autobiography. "I chose a route which gave us the hardest climbing along the rocks and the deepest crossings of the creek; and my army friends enjoyed it hugely being the right sort, to a man."
Looking at Roosevelt's rigorous physical activities, it was almost as if he was trying to prove on a daily basis that he was the strongest president. Boxing? Check. Wrestling? Check. Martial Arts? Check. In fact, Roosevelt trained with world famous judo master Yoshiaka Yamashita, eventually rising to the level of brown belt. During his presidency, he was punched in the face, body slammed, submerged in a frozen river and shot - the first three voluntarily, the last one, involuntarily. If surviving all four doesn't earn you a 5 in the Executive Power rankings, nothing will.
Roosevelt was president about 80 years before the running and jogging craze began in the 1980s, but he actively pursued his own version of both -- only with obstacles in the way. TR scores well in this category, but a 5 is reserved for the absolute highest of fitness achievements. Only 6 presidents received a perfect score in this category and while Roosevelt is at the top of the list, his sparring sessions fair slightly lower than running a marathon (George W. Bush), swimming 3 miles in the open ocean while dragging a wounded soldier (JFK), or being an All-American college football player (Gerald Ford). For once, TR will have to settle for being almost the best.
No contest here. It would be hard to argue that a president sought out more physical activity while in office than TR. There's no need to go over his activities again, but it's safe to say that for modern presidents, Theodore Rex set the bar for exercise very, very high.
If a president got a trophy for activity level, Roosevelt would get a perfect score here again. Unfortunately, while he boxed in college, he never won a championship; and while he earned a brown belt, he never competed for a title; and while he created torturous, triathlon like obstacle courses, he never won any medals in a real competition. That's why he gets a 4 and not a 5. Only four presidents earned a 5 in this category. Ford earned his for being an NCAA All-American and football champion. George H.W. Bush earned his for playing in the college baseball World Series at Yale, twice. And Eisenhower got his 5 for earning a starting spot on the West Point football team as both a linebacker and running back. Oh, and Hoover got a 5 for inventing his own sport -- though it still wasn't enough to push him to the top of this list.
There's a fine line between toughness and strength. TR walked on both sides. His willingness to engage in hand-to-hand combat has already been established, but is there a greater measure of toughness than how he acted after he was shot? Just before he was about to give a speech in Milwaukee, Roosevelt took a .32 caliber bullet to the chest at point blank range from a would-be assassin. Fortunately, he had some papers and a glasses case in his coat pocket to blunt the initial force of the impact, however, the bullet ended up lodged in the president's chest. After a short delay, TR went on to deliver his speech -- with the bullet still in his body. After a few words, perhaps our manliest president pulled the bloodstained script of his speech from his chest pocket and said, "You see, it takes more than one bullet to kill a Bull Moose." He won over the crowd, and a solid 5 score for toughness, in the process.
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