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The Forgotten Olympic Gold Medalist From Middletown

John Spellman, a Somersville resident who was born in Middletown, won a gold medal in freestyle wrestling at the 1924 Olympic Games in Paris.

With the Summer Olympics set to begin in London on July 27, Patch recently compiled a list of the .

One name that was not on the list, but easily could have been, was John Spellman. Unfortunately, he is all but forgotten, as his heyday was nearly nine decades ago.

A native of Middletown, Spellman grew up on his family's farm on Hall Hill Road in Somersville.

Like his five siblings, he attended the Hall Hill one-room schoolhouse, then took a trolley to Enfield every weekday to attend , from where he graduated in 1918.

He followed in the footsteps of his brother Bob, enrolling at Brown University. His brother was captain of the wrestling team in 1923, and John followed suit the next year (a third brother, Frank, captained the squad in 1928).

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A two-time AAU champion, Spellman sought permission to take three days off from school to attend the 1924 Olympic Trials. His request was denied by Dean of Students Otis Randall, but Spellman went to the trials anyway, earning a spot on the Olympic freestyle wrestling team. Dean Randall punished Spellman for his defiance, denying him permission to graduate with his class, although he had fulfilled all the requirements.  

The 1924 Olympics were held in Paris, and Spellman breezed through the first two rounds in the light-heavyweight division, pinning Walter Wilson of Great Britain and George Rumpel of Canada. In the semifinals, he won a decision over Carl Westergren of Sweden, a three-time gold medalist in Greco-Roman wrestling, to earn a trip to the finals.

In the gold medal match, Spellman faced another Swede, future two-time Greco-Roman gold medalist Rudolf Svensson. Spellman won by decision to earn the gold medal, one of four won by American grapplers.

Having excelled in both football and wrestling in college, Spellman entered the pro ranks in both sports. He signed as a lineman with the Providence Steam Roller of the National Football League in 1925, and was a member of the 1928 NFL championship squad. He was named second team all-NFL in 1929, and stayed with Providence through 1931, then played a final season with the Boston Braves in 1932.

Concurrent with his football career, the 5-foot-10, 201-pound Spellman became a professional wrestler. He traveled the country numerous times, and eventually trained his former Providence teammate, Gus Sonnenberg, who went on to become world heavyweight champion.

Spellman became a full-time wrestler upon his retirement from pro football, and continued to travel extensively. In 1936, he embarked on a lengthy world tour with his wrestling troupe, arriving in Africa in 1938.

The onset of World War II left Spellman unable to return to the United States. He became a mining engineer in Zimbabwe, and remained there until his death at age 67 in 1966.

Two years after his death, Spellman was inducted posthumously into the Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame, and he was elected to the in 2001. His Enfield award was accepted by his sole living sibling, Ruth Terwilliger, who was 96 at the time; she passed away in 2006, a month shy of her 100th birthday.

Mark Palmer July 16, 2012 at 01:46 PM
Thanks for your great tribute to an Olympic gold medal-winning wrestler of the past. Thanks to your work, John Spellman is forgotten no more. Mark Palmer, InterMatWrestle.com

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