A New York police officer who never even wrestled until he entered college (in high school, he was captain of his state championship chess team!), Wittenberg became one of the most remarkable wrestlers in the annals of the sport, going undefeated for a mind-boggling 12 years. At the 1948 Olympic Games, Wittenberg won the light-heavyweight gold medal. He later said of the final match: "I was ahead for almost three-quarters of the bout. Then I ripped some tendons in my chest. I was in agony. But I knew I could win if I hung in there. I was lucky. I did."
Henry retired following the Games because his duties as a policeman were too demanding, although he did compete at the 1950 Maccabiah Games. In 1952, however, he came out of retirement because: "...a couple of months before the 1952 Olympics in Finland, my wife suddenly began a campaign around the house for a trip to Helsinki. She said it was a lovely place to spend a vacation. What else could I do? I went back into training. I won the national championship [his eighth!] and then was injured and lost to Dale Thomas in the Olympic trials. It was my first defeat in more than 400 matches. However, I reversed the decision and beat Thomas in the final tryouts and earned a trip to Finland."
At the 1952 Helsinki Games, Henry was captained the U.S. Olympic wrestling team and won the silver medal in the heavyweight class (he was the first American wrestler to win two Olympic medals since 1908). Henry later became head coach of the U.S. Olympic wrestling team at the 1968 Games.
One of the greatest wrestlers in history, Wittenberg's only interest as a youth was chess. He later explained how he got into wrestling: "...there were only two sports open to me at CCNY [City College of New York] - swimming and wrestling. Both were winter sports and I had to choose one or the other. I swam a little but picked wrestling. I weighed only 150 pounds at the time and had never wrestled." One of the smartest wrestlers ever, Henry seemed to understand the sport immediately; in his first match, he broke two of his opponents' ribs! A quick study, Wittenberg finished third at 165-pounds at the 1938 NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) Championships and went on to finish second in the 175-pound class at the 1939 NCAA Championships, his last loss for over 12 years.
During his unbeaten streak, Wittenberg won the U.S. AAU (Amateur Athletic Union) wrestling title eight times between 1940 and 1952; the 174-pound class in 1940-1941, and the 191-pound title in 1943-1944, 1946-1948, and 1952; he was AAU Wrestler of the Year in 1941 and was the Sullivan Award (U.S. outstanding amateur athlete) runner up in 1947. Following his Olympic triumph the following year, Henry was named the Jewish Athlete of the Year in 1949. Henry also won the gold medal in the heavyweight class at the 1950 and 1953 Maccabiah Games; he retired following the 1953 Games. Wittenberg, who received a Master's degree in 1941 from Columbia Teachers College, coached wrestling at Yeshiva University from 1959-1967, and at CCNY from 1967-1979. He is a member of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame, the New York Jewish Sports Hall of Fame, and the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame.
Birth and Death Dates:
b. Sept. 18, 1918
Jersey City, New Jersey
Use links below to navigate through the olympics section of Jews In Sports.
PHOTOGRAPHS AND OTHER IMAGES
Also, read a chapter from The Jew in American Sports by Harold U. Ribalow and Meir Z. Ribalow
Jewish Sports Legends: The International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame, by Joseph Siegman (Washington, D.C.: Brassey's, 2000)
encyclopedia of JEWS in sports, by Bernard Postal, Jesse Silver, and Roy Silver (New York: Bloch Publishing Co., 1965)