From the Vatican to Olympic gold … in 1904

VATICAN CITY — Today, the opening day of the Olympic Games in China, the Vatican newspaper is running a curious sports feature titled, “From the Vatican to St. Louis in search of Olympic gold.”

The article tells the story of Louis Handley, who won gold medals as part of the New York Athletic Club’s water polo team and the club’s  four-by-50-yard freestyle swimming relay team at the 1904 games in St. Louis.

Born in Rome in 1874, the name on his birth certificate was Luigi de Breda (his Italian mother’s last name). His father was Francis Montague Handley, a U.S. sculptor who lived in the Vatican and served as the private butler to both Popes Pius X and Leo XIII, the article said.

The sculptor’s son moved to the United States when he was 22 years old and began using the name Louis de Breda Handley.

The Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, said that in addition to studying in Rome with the Christian Brothers — and becoming proficient in Italian, English, French, Spanish, Latin and Greek — he also was a dedicated sportsman. Swimming was just one of his passions, but because there were no pools in Rome at the time, he did it in the Tiber River (which, the newspaper pointed out, was not polluted at the time).

After winning two gold medals in 1904, he went on to become a famous — and winning — coach of female swimmers. (Women’s swimming did not become a regular part of the Olympics until the 1912 games in Stockholm, Sweden.)

The Vatican newspaper article said Hanley was “a promoter of women’s emancipation.”

Handley died in New York Dec. 28, 1956, and was inducted into the American Swimming Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 1967.

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