Harold Connolly '53 at the Dec. 10 dedication of a statue ó located in front of the Taft School in Brighton ó in honor of his Olympic achievements. (Photo courtesy of Connolly family)
Connolly a Statuesque Figure in BC Lore
Brighton sculpture honors the former Olympian and 1953 grad
By Reid Oslin
Look carefully at the new statue in Brighton that honors Olympic gold medal winner Harold Connolly - a Brighton native and 1953 Boston College graduate - and you'll notice what seems to be a mistake: The likeness of this powerful athlete has a right arm significantly more muscular than the left.
But it's no mistake.
Connolly overcame that lifelong physical handicap to represent the United States as a hammer thrower in four Olympiads, winning the gold medal in the 1956 Games at Melbourne, Australia, where he set a world record in the event and defeated the defending world champion, a heavily-favored Russian athlete.
He is the only former Boston College student-athlete to have won a gold medal in Olympic competition.
The bronze statue honoring Connolly and his achievements, dedicated in a formal ceremony on Dec. 10, is located in front of the former William H. Taft Middle School on Warren Street near Brighton center.
Connolly's rise to athletic excellence was not an easy journey. During birth, he sustained severe nerve damage to his left arm. The limb did not develop and became withered as the young boy grew.
"My father and my uncles were all athletes, they always encouraged me to always do the very best I could," Connolly recalled in a recent telephone interview from his home in Radford, Va. "My mother would often tell the story about how my uncles would come over to visit and they would playfully knock me down in my crib and then tell me to get right back up."
Attempting to remedy the lack of strength in his left arm, the teenaged Connolly purchased a set of weights. He broke the limb several times, either trying to lift the heavy barbells or attempting to practice a sport. Eventually, he built up enough muscle mass in the arm to enable him to play football and take part in track and field events during his senior year at Brighton High.
"I grew up in an apartment on Commonwealth Avenue," he said. "I was a neighborhood kid who came up in the local schools right from kindergarten through Brighton High School. I was really a part of that neighborhood. In fact, I lived with my family in the same place for 26 years."
When it was time to look at colleges, Connolly said that his family offered him few options. "Boston College was the place where you went if you had aspirations for college and you lived in Brighton and you were Irish-American," he laughed. "I had begun to improve as an athlete in my senior year in high school and was beginning to get some confidence that I might be able to be a college athlete."
He came to Boston College as a commuter student, majoring in history and taking the old MTA trolley up Commonwealth Avenue to Lake Street every day. He never received an athletic scholarship.
Connolly says he toyed with the idea of trying out for the BC football team, but one look at a rigorous pre-season practice steered him instead to the track office where he met then-assistant coach Bill Gilligan, a weight-throw specialist who was a fellow Brighton High graduate. "I just walked into his office and, surprisingly, he knew me. That impressed me. He had an interest in anyone who walked into his office. He said I was welcome on his team."
Connolly started off as a shot putter. "I struggled," he says. "I couldn't even beat the guy who was ahead of me at Boston College. One day, Bill said to me 'Will you hang around and help with the hammer throwers to help speed up the practice?' He said he would give me a ride home. I thought that was great because it meant avoiding having to take the street car home."
Connolly's task at hammer throw practice - held on the rocky terrain of the filled-in former reservoir where Conte Forum is now located - was to retrieve the weights and toss them back to the throwers' circle.
"I started to watch what Bill was saying to the throwers and copied in my own way and with my own adaptations what they were doing," Connolly said. "I started throwing it back over their heads and Bill said, 'You have got to come over here and start throwing from this side.'
"That's how I became a hammer thrower."
Connolly improved his skills throughout his senior year and after graduation in 1953 enrolled in a master's degree program in education at Boston University. There he worked with BU track coach Ed Flanagan and Bob Backus, a Tufts alumnus who had thrown the hammer in the 1952 Olympics and was living in Marshfield and practicing at BU.
"I was getting a lot of course work done, but I was also getting better and better with my throws and I realized that maybe I could make the US Olympic team," Connolly said.
The next summer, Connolly and Backus competed in weight throw events throughout Europe, picking up fine points of the sport from coaches and competitors on the continent.
Connolly knew that to win the Olympic championship he would have to outperform the Russian world champion Mikhail Krivonosov. He pasted a photo of Krivonosov to the visor on his automobile to inspire him to work toward his goal.
When the young hammer thrower from Boston got to Melbourne, he discovered that Krivonosov's teammates had prepared a cake to celebrate the Russian's anticipated victory in the event. Krivonosov established a new world record of 206 feet, 8 inches with an early throw, and the competition seemed to be decided.
However, on his fifth toss, "with my hands sweating so badly I could hardly hold the handle," Connolly launched the weight to a distance of 207'3" - a new world standard. The gold medal was his.
And so was the victory cake, which Krivonosov graciously presented to him.
Returning to the United States, Connolly was suddenly a national hero. He was asked to have his picture placed on the front of Wheaties' cereal boxes and to be a special guest on the Steve Allen and "This Is Your Life" television shows. Connolly had to turn down all of the offers because of the strict amateur athletics rules of the day, which forbade any type of paid appearance or endorsement.
Connolly accepted a job as a junior high school history teacher in Santa Monica, Calif., where the temperate climate was ideal for year-round athletic training. He qualified for the US Olympic Teams three more times - 1960, 1964 and 1968 - but failed to win another medal.
"I never realized how much pressure there is on an Olympic athlete until I got to Rome [in 1960] and was one of the favorites to win," Connolly said. "I knew little about how to prepare both psychologically and physically under the circumstances of being a favorite rather than being an underdog. It's a lot different."
Connolly had a chance to medal in the 1964 games in Tokyo, but injured his back just days before the final competition. "In Mexico City  I was about 40 years old, past my prime and I didn't make it into the final round," he said.
"I had a long career. I became more humble in later years, realizing that just to make one Olympic team is an enormous accomplishment."
Connolly returned to his teaching career, completing his master's degree at UCLA and advancing to become principal of Santa Monica High School, a position he held until his retirement in 1988.
He then went on to become the executive director of the Special Olympics for the next 11 years. Connolly also served as a volunteer weight coach at nearby Georgetown University during much of that time. He and his wife Pat, a track coach at Radford University, are the parents of seven children.
"As I said in my acceptance speech at the statue dedication, the community of Allston-Brighton and Boston College - and I think of this now even more so - shaped my life and made me the person that I am," Connolly said. "I'll forever be grateful for that."