Arthur Longsjo: A two-sport athlete for the ages

Two-sport legend Arthur Longsjo
There might not be a Lance Armstrong, or a Greg LeMond or an Eric Heiden, if it werent for a pioneer like Arthur Longsjo.

On Thursday, June 29, the 41st annual Fitchburg Longsjo Classic, a four-day bicycle stage race, will wheel away in Fitchburg, Mass., west of Boston. The event commemorates the life and times of Arthur Longsjo, the only American to compete in the winter and summer Olympics in the same year.

In January 1956, Longsjo, who was the national North American champion, competed in speed skating in the Winter Games in Cortina, Italy. Eight months later Longsjo was cycling for the United States in the Summer Games in Melbourne, Australia. While he did not medal in either Games, he was still a great hero to the folks of Fitchburg and a pioneer to both sports.

Two years after the Summer Olympics, on Sept. 16, 1958, as he was returning home after a tremendous victory in a 191-mile race from Quebec City to Montreal, Longsjo was killed in an automobile accident in South Hero, Vt., outside of Burlington. He was 26 years old.

It was an absolute shock and put the entire town into deep depression, said Brian McCarthy, who had trained with Longsjo both in speed skating and cycling prior to both Olympic Games.

McCarthy, who is now a pathologist living in Florida, recently reminisced about those days in the 1950s when Longsjo was one of the best all-around athletes in America, and about his tragic death.

He was at the top of his game when he died, McCarthy said. He had just won the Quebec City-Montreal Road Race. He had broken away from the field at the halfway point. It was unheard of, taking off with 100 miles to go just riding away from the field but he had just done that and won the race.

He was coming back through Vermont, McCarthy recalled. He was with Eddie Robinson, an amateur fighter from Fitchburg, who was just helping Longsjo with the driving. A bee flew into the car, and Eddie swiped at it and the car went off the road and Arthur was killed.

There was some interesting things about the manner of Arthurs death, McCarthy said. He should have been killed instantly. Any normal human being would have been killed instantly but Arthur was so strong and his heart was so exceptional that he survived about 12 to 14 hours. And during his survival period at the hospital, his wife and several skaters and cyclists went to Vermont and were there when he expired.

Longsjo, who was born in Fitchburg on Oct. 23, 1931, began speed skating at age 12. In 1952 he was the North American Outdoor champion and four years later was the youngest member of the U.S. Olympic speed skating team at the age of 24.

Longsjo came to cycling initially as training for speed skating. But his highly competitive nature soon brought him to cycling championships. His first major cycling victory was in the Massachusetts Bicycle Racing event in 1953, an accomplishment he repeated in 1954.

He soon began racing in Canada where he captured the Quebec City to Montreal Cycling Road Race in record-breaking time of 7:22.58, almost seven minutes better than the previous mark. Two years later he was the youngest member of the U.S. Olympic cycling team.

Strangely enough, Art was turned down by the Air Force, McCarthy recalled. He had tried to join that branch of service in the middle '50s, but they said he had a bad heart. What he did have was a small pinhole between ventricles. And that just created a blowing murmur which you could hear with a stethoscope. All that made it a more incredible that this guy could be such a good cyclist and skater.

He was a great all-around athlete, McCarthy said. He could basically play any sport. Cycling and skating were his competitive sports. He could ski or play tennis as well as anyone around.

McCarthy was just a 15-year-old kid when he began training with Longsjo, who was then in his 20s.

Arthur acted as a coach for me, as did his best friend, John Walsh, a Canadian skater who lived in Worcester," McCarthy said. "John made the Canadian Olympic team and Art made the U.S. team, and they both got me involved in skating and cycling as a teenager.

He told me that when he first started competing back in the late '40s and early '50s, that he didnt know anything; that he was just an interested kid with a lot of enthusiasm, McCarthy said. He told me how he was taken under the wing of another Fitchburg athlete Alec Goguen, who was a great skater back in the '30s and '40s, and that if it hadnt been for Alex and his training and work sessions, he wouldnt have gone past New England competition.

Goguen once told me when I was a kid that Arthur has the most potential of any of the athletes he had worked with, McCarthy said. But he had to refine it, he had to learn.

When he first started out speed skating people used to laugh at him, McCarthy said. He was just a clompety-clomp skater like everyone else. But then he realized he had to do certain training techniques to improve certain skills in strength, speed and endurance.

He broke things down into three categories speed, power, and endurance. You have to work on all; they dont just come naturally. Some people have certain gifts, but you have to work in other areas. He developed special training methods for himself to emphasize his strengths and minimize his weaknesses.

Arthur was way ahead of his time in his techniques in training, McCarthy said. He was doing unconventional things at the time which are now commonplace.

McCarthy remembers Longsjos funeral.

I was just a 15-year-old kid and I stood around pretty much in awe, McCarthy said. There were Olympic athletes from all over the country who came to the funeral from multiple sports from skating, cycling, and track and field.

George Wallace, the towns biggest philanthropist and owner of the Fitchburg Paper Company, was there, and I remember that he was just speechless. He just couldnt say a word.

I think that when he contributed money to build two skating rinks in Fitchburg that he did so as a tribute to Arthur. He was inspired by Arthur as an athlete and by his death, McCarthy said.

One of those Olympians at the funeral was Guy Morin, a Canadian cyclist who raced against Longsjo from 1953 until Longsjo's death. He was one of the people behind the idea of the memorial bicycle race in Longsjos honor. He felt so strongly about it that if Fitchburg didnt respond to the idea, he would have held a race in Canada.

Fittingly, Morin won that first Longsjo race, held July 2, 1960.

I remember that first race, McCarthy said. It was the most spectacular because the Olympic Trials were being held the next week in New York. All of the Olympic candidates were at the race. It was something very special.

The Longsjo Classic has grown from a one-day criterium to a four-day stage race, which includes a circuit race, time trial, criterium and road race that finishes at the top of Mt. Wachusett in Princeton. The race is part of the Saturn USPRO Cycling Tour. This years field of elite racers is expected to include at least 35 prospective Olympians.

That hill climb at Mt. Wachusett each year brings back a lot of memories to a lot of people, McCarthy said. It was on that mountain that Arthur did a lot of his training, both on and off the bike. He used to run from his house, which was about nine miles from the mountain. He would then run up the mountain and back down. He would do this in the fall and the winter. And in the summer and spring he would ride his bike up the mountain as part of his training.

The spirit of Arthur Longsjo will certainly be with all the riders who head up Mt. Wachusett and in and around the town of Fitchburg this week and weekend.

There were a number of special things that Art told me which I have never forgotten and have applied to my own life, McCarthy said. The most significant thing was, If you can do it in your heart, your body will follow.'"

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