The young Robert Garrett had entered Princeton University in 1893. Though a keen sportsman, he failed to make an impression on the track, and instead focused on field events, going on to become one of the best shot-putters on the American collegiate circuit, as well as an accomplished long and high jumper.
When IOC founder Baron Pierre de Coubertin summoned international athletic figures to a meeting in Paris in 1894, Princeton classics professor William Milligan Sloane was among the Americans present. De Coubertin tasked Sloane and another US professor from Harvard to put together a US team.
Garrett was one of Sloane’s students, and by now captain of the Princeton athletics team and was among those asked to travel to Athens. In fact, it was Garrett’s mother, a wealthy widow, who bankrolled the entire Princeton contingent on their travels to the Games.
Shot-putter Garrett’s interest had been sparked when he learned the Games would include a discus throw. The only trouble was that this ancient discipline didn't yet exist in America. In fact, Garrett and Sloane had to examine some ancient Greek drawings and vases to establish what exactly was entailed, and then, estimating the weight and dimensions, instructed a New Jersey blacksmith to make him one. Though, as his grandson later noted, "I guess he miscalculated a bit."
The discus was ready by the time Garrett and the rest of the US contingent set sail for Athens, via Italy. During the journey, he practised on deck using a mammoth discus, struggling to throw it any distance at all. He expected to have plenty more time to practice once in Greece, but this proved to be another miscalculation.
Failing to realise that the Greeks used the old Julian calendar, the Americans had thought that the Games were due to begin on 18 April. In fact they were set to start on 6 April, and the Americans had to make a mad dash overland from Naples to Athens, arriving on the day of the opening ceremony. Garrett headed straight for the stadium, where he met a Greek athlete who explained that the actual discus used by the Greeks weighed less than 5 pounds and had a diameter of 8 inches – 25 and a half pounds lighter and four inches narrower than the manhole-sized replica he had had crafted.
Garrett duly won the competition, defeating champion Greek thrower Panagiotis Paraskevopoulos, setting a new world record in the process. It was a remarkable achievement for a young man who, just a few months earlier, didn’t even know what a discus looked like, and had not so much as touched a real one before arriving in Athens.
“I wanted as much action as I could since it meant fun,” recalled Garrett 60 years later. “I got into the discus thing never figuring I'd do anything but finish an absolute last. The technique of throwing it was all new to me.”
“I threw the thing 95 feet, 7 1/2 inches, which was high school distance later on,” he added. “But it was better than anybody else, so I won, and nobody was more surprised than I was when they gave me the prize.”
His medal-winning feats in Athens did not stop there however. Garrett also won the shot put, again seeing off two strong Greek rivals to top the podium; and he came second and joint second (with James Connolly) in the long jump and high jump respectively, giving him a tally of two golds and two silvers in modern terms.
His Olympic medals were sadly destroyed in a 1930s fire at Princeton's gymnasium, but his story was immortalised on the silver screen in the 1984 film First Olympics.