College isn’t really about athletics—but colleges do like their athletes to be noticed. That’s why they build those big stadiums and pay coaches more than professors.
More than 100 years later, Media’s Williamson Free School of Mechanical Trades is still smarting over one Ted Meredith, who brought Olympic fame to the wrong institution. Meredith came to Williamson in 1908 to earn a certificate in bricklaying. A star on the school’s track team, he attracted a scout from the prestigious Mercersburg Academy, which awarded him a scholarship.
After he won two gold medals at the 1912 Games in Stockholm, the papers called him the “Mercersburg Schoolboy,” with no mention of where his running career had actually began. Ouch. “This is something we are well aware of and find a bit distressing,” says Williamson spokesperson Carl Vairo. “We’ve tried to set the record straight, but it’s a big world out there.”
Born in Chester Heights, where his father, James, trained trotting horses, Meredith was the fourth of seven children. The family later moved to a 60-acre farm in Elwyn. A standout sprinter in high school, James also coached the track-and-field program at Williamson. Founded in 1888 by Quaker philanthropist Isaiah V. Williamson, the school gave free scholarships to poor boys wishing to learn a technical trade. Today, that includes masonry, carpentry, painting, landscape management and power-plant operation.
Meredith began running as a member of the relay team at Media High School. In 1907, when he was 15, his team ran a one-mile course in the Penn Relays, scoring second to Camden High School, but the team-oriented nature of relays meant that no individual stood out.
Meredith graduated in 1908, but the family had no money for college. With Williamson virtually next door and his father in charge of the track team, it made sense to enroll there. He stayed three years, earning his bricklaying certificate in 1911.
Meredith was a three-sport student. He was a star end on the 1909 and 1910 Williamson football teams and a guard on the 1911 basketball team. But he really stood out at track. In his first season, Meredith set school records of 2:10 in the 880-yard race, and 5:06 in the one-mile. In a meet at Swarthmore College, his relay team set a one-mile school record of 3:41. Williamson continued its surge the following year:
Meredith won four cups in the 1909 Penn Relays, came in third in the Middle States Interscholastic Championship’s 440-yard race, and won the 220-yard dash in a meet at the West Chester Normal School (now West Chester University).
One of Meredith’s most memorable runs came in 1909, when he and a friend sprinted back to campus from a party in downtown Media. Williamson required that students be back in the dorm by 10 p.m. or lose privileges for 30 days. According to a 2008 article in the Journal of Olympic History, they left the party at 9:44 p.m. The route included a long, high, single-track railroad trestle. And, of course, it was dark. “It was three miles to school, but the desperate pair reached the gate in time,” the Journal reported.
In 1910, the Williamson team won its heat at the Penn Relays. Then, Meredith won his 440 and 880 races just about everywhere. He was also a football hero: In a game against Franklin & Marshall College, he intercepted a pass in the Williamson end zone. Then, on a field 110 yards long, he ran the ball 115 yards for a touchdown. The team went on to scoreless ties and victories against other college teams.
Given that the team had no coach, it was a more than respectable performance. “The players were self-taught and had no official time to practice,” according to the Journal. “They went through their drills after dinner, in semi-darkness, using a football painted white.”
When Ted Meredith graduated from Williamson in April 1911, he could’ve started laying bricks. Instead, he went back to school. Mercersburg track coach Jimmy Curran had come up with a “working scholarship” that would earn the sort of credits he needed for college. His duties included working the campus switchboard and selling photographs of sporting events.
Considered a natural runner by his con-temporaries, Meredith was 5-foot-9 and weighed 155 pounds. He was fast at the start and, in defiance of classic running form, flayed his arms like the blades of a windmill. Some thought Meredith’s unusual stamina was due to some secret his father had picked up training horses.
In April 1912, Meredith was back at the Penn Relays as anchor of the Mercersburg team, which won its event by 50 yards. Two weeks later, he set world interscholastic records in the quarter- and half-mile, covering the latter in 1:55. “Meredith doesn’t seem to know how fast he can run,” Curran said. “But I know he’s the fastest runner the world has ever seen.”
Curran thought the Olympic trials at Harvard University would be a good experience for Meredith. He made the team after winning the first 800-yard heat in 1:53 4/5—the same time run by Mel Sheppard in a subsequent heat. Sheppard, of Deptford County, N.J., had been the top U.S. runner at the 1908 Olympics, where he won four gold medals.
Curran later claimed that, in the trials, he deliberately put Meredith in the 880 rather than the 440—which, with weaker competitors, he could have run “in a walk.”
“I told him to run his own race in the final,” wrote Curran in Recreation magazine, “as he would be sure of the team now, and see if he could beat Sheppard in the sprint, a thing no runner had been capable of doing when Sheppard was fit.”
Curran reported getting “chaff” from experts for not putting Meredith in the 440. However, he thought it more important to establish a benchmark against Sheppard than to win big.
Stockholm was chosen for the 1912 Olympics through the familiar means of lobbying and money. Swedes on the International Olympic Committee used their influence, and a new stadium was built that exceeded its budget. The United States won the most gold medals, and Sweden the most medals overall.
Entering the Stockholm Olympics, Mel Sheppard held the world indoor records for 600 yards, 880 yards, 1,000 yards and the mile in 1907. He won three gold medals at the 1908 London Olympics.
Years later, Sheppard described his race against Meredith in the 800 as the closest Olympic race he’d ever run. Sheppard drew the pole position, which he disliked because he had no idea who was behind him or how close. “So I was away fast, carrying the pace,” he said.
Meredith, meanwhile, was fighting to get the lead. At 60 or 70 yards, Sheppard heard him pounding along at his shoulder, but didn’t know who it was. Maybe it was Hanns Braun, a German who’d won the British half-mile championship, or perhaps Ira Davenport, a fellow American he considered even more of a threat. At the halfway post, Sheppard still led, with Meredith close behind. Braun, Davenport and the others followed.
Boxed in, Braun tried to get clear by running around Davenport. But he couldn’t catch Meredith. “Fighting as if for life itself, I saw the tape loom up,” recalled Sheppard. “But at the same instant, Ted Meredith, one of the greatest runners who ever put on a show, also loomed up.”
Meredith won the gold at 1:51 9/10. Sheppard and Davenport came in at 1:52 flat. Said Sheppard: “I think there was scarcely daylight showing between us.”
But it was enough.
Back at Williamson, all the excitement must have been bittersweet. The runner they’d launched was now “the remarkable schoolboy runner Meredith of Mercersburg Academy” (New York Times) and the “schoolboy of Mercersburg” (Outlook magazine). And that’s how he went into the history books.
Consider the record set straight.