Several American presidents had been wrestlers. George Washington was a colony-wide champion in is youth. Abraham Lincoln was a winner as well. During his long amateur career, he was either undefeated, or defeated only once in almost one hundred matches. He reportedly took on a local tough named Jack Armstrong, who began cheating by stomping on Lincoln’s hand. Lincoln picked him up and slammed him on his head, knocking him out, and winning the respect of Armstrong’s gang.
Leonardo da Vinci, in addition to all of the various talents for which he is famous – painting, anatomy, drawing – was also incredibly strong and coordinated. He would dance to entertain kings and could take an iron horseshoe and bend it with his right hand “like it was made of lead.”
Ben Franklin was a great swimmer. He learned moves from an old renaissance-era book he was printing. He was so talented that he began teaching it, and came close to starting his own swimming school.
Gautama Siddhartha, who was born a prince, had a royal education that included archery, swordsmanship, and wrestling. He apparently was a champion wrestler before he went on to found Buddhism.
The ancient Greek philosophers emphasized athletics. Plato was a champion wrestler in his youth. In fact, “Plato” is a nickname, meaning broad-shouldered, that he got from his wrestling days. His pupil, Aristotle, used wrestling as a teaching tool in the school he founded and when tutoring Alexander the Great.
Even the non-violent champions were athletes in their youth. Gandhi loved cricket, and was a skilled player (though he eschewed physical exercise as he got older). He used soccer to bring people together while he lived in South Africa. Nelson Mandela was a boxer; he loved the “science” of boxing, saying it contributed to his later understanding of strategy.
Mandela’s insight provides a clue that goes much deeper than a trite “sound body in a sound mind” assessment when trying to analyze why so many of these leaders and geniuses were athletes: perhaps they learned something from it.
Modern sports psychologists talk about “mental toughness” and “grit.” Russian sports psychologists were clearer, and deeper: athletics develop the will.