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Which presidents were the best athletes? You might be surprised

September 28, 2017

We know plenty of presidents have been avid golfers – including the current president -- but a surprising number also were very good in other sports ranging from wrestling to mountaineering. Political views aside, here are the top 10 athletic presidents:

10. Woodrow Wilson

Wilson reportedly played more rounds of golf while in the White House than any other president but he also coached rugby football briefly at Princeton. Another sport of his was bicycling. According to a recent story in Adventure Cycling, Wilson started cycling in the 1890s while teaching at Princeton. He went on some bike trips in England and once biked more than 200 miles from York to London.

He did not, however, ever ride in the Tour de France. Or the Tour de Trump.

President Wilson Opens The Baseball Season

Underwood Archives

9. Abraham Lincoln

Not only considered one of our greatest presidents, Lincoln also has been honored in the National Wrestling Hall of Fame. Yes, it’s true. George Washington, who also wrestled, was likewise honored but Lincoln might have been better. He was wrestling champ of his county in Illinois and his ability was noted in the first Lincoln-Douglas debate when his opponent Stephen Douglas said, “He could beat any of the boys at wrestling.’’

Honest Abe would have been great in the WWE, especially if he had his axe in the ring.

8. George W. Bush

A baseball fan – he reportedly wanted to be commissioner -- Bush’s most famous performance was throwing the first pitch before Game 3 of the 2001 World Series. But baseball wasn’t his only interest. He also mountain biked and ran. He did the 1993 Houston marathon in 3:44.52, which was more than an hour faster than Al Gore ran the 1997 Marine Corps marathon.

7. Barack Obama

Obama is noted for his basketball passion. He was on the high school team that won the Hawaii state championship, though he was not a starter. While running for president in 2008, he scrimmaged in various spots, including at North Carolina with the Tar Heels who won the 2009 Final Four. As he told Bryant Gumbel: “I do think you can tell something about people by the way they play basketball.’’

So should we vote for LeBron James or Stephen Curry?

Obama Campaigns Ahead Of Indiana And North Carolina Primaries

Mark Wilson

6. Ronald Reagan

Reagan was a sports broadcaster and also portrayed athletes George Gipp and Grover Cleveland Alexander in movies. He played football, ran and also swam. In fact, he is honored with a gold medallion at the International Swimming Hall of Fame. He also was a lifeguard. Beginning as a teenager, Reagan reportedly helped save 77 people over seven years.

Take that, Michael Phelps!

Ronald Takes A Dip

John Kobal Foundation

5. Dwight Eisenhower

In addition to loving golf, Ike played football as a cadet at West Point where he was a running back and linebacker. (There are also reports that he briefly played semi-pro baseball elsewhere under a different name.) He might have gone on to do more in sports had he not injured his knee while attempting to tackle the legendary Jim Thorpe in a football game.

But maybe that was a good thing considering what he did in World War II and the White House.

4. John F. Kennedy

Kennedy played football his freshman year at Harvard but also loved sailing and won several races and the Eastern Collegiate championship with Harvard. He swam at Harvard, too. His most notable swimming feat probably was in World War II after his PT-109 was sunk. Even though he had chronic back issues, JFK “towed’’ an injured crewman to an island by dragging him with the strap of his life-vest in his teeth.

President Kennedy at Beach with Admirers


3. George H. W. Bush

You can read about Bush in many places but amazingly, he also is on That’s because he played first base for Yale and helped lead his school to the first two College World Series. He didn’t make the majors, but decades later he would throw out ceremonial first pitches at several big league games, including once at age 91.

George H.W. Bush


2. Theodore Roosevelt

Roosevelt once said: “I believe in rough games and in rough, manly sports.’’ Which was true. In addition to being an army Rough Rider, Teddy tried multiple sports. He wrestled and boxed – he had sparring matches in the White House until having his left eye damaged by a punch -- rowed, played tennis, did judo and hiked. He even climbed the Matterhorn.

No wonder we can see his image atop Mount Rushmore.

1. Gerald Ford

Ford was the center on Michigan’s football teams that won championships in 1932 and 1933, was its MVP in 1934 and played against the Chicago Bears in a 1935 college All-Star game. He had the chance to go pro with Green Bay and Detroit but chose to attend law school at Yale, where he helped coach the football and boxing teams. The World History Project says he even coached the JV cheerleading squad because he knew how to do back handsprings.

With all that, he should have been given the Presidents Cup. After all, he was a pretty good golfer, too.

Gerald Ford - Michigan - File Photos

Michigan University