Thorpe was born on May 28, 1887 to American Indian parents Hiram and Charlotte Thorpe in Indian Territory, Oklahoma. Growing up with his older brother George and twin brother Charlie, he learned to ride horses and swim at age three.
When Thorpe was ten, he was sent to a boarding school about 40 miles from home with his brother Charlie. He was unhappy there, and would often run home. When his twin brother died, he left school at the age of nine. His dad didn't like his absence from school, so he sent him to school in Kansas. Without his brother, he was miserable. When he heard that his dad had been injured, 13-year-old Jim ran and hitchhiked almost 300 miles back home. Soon after, his mother died. He left for Texas, where, still only 13, he worked on a ranch, breaking wild horses and mending fences.
At age 16, he decided to enroll in the Carlisle Indian School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. A few months later, his father died, leaving Thorpe an orphan. Slowly, he recovered from the loss of his family members. He joined the Carlisle track-and-field team after breaking the school record for the high jump on his first try. He also longed to play football, but the coach, “Pop” Warner, wouldn't let him, fearing Thorpe would hurt himself. When Warner finally let him try out, Thorpe ran through all four defensive groups easily. Warner was shocked; he had never seen a rookie do anything like that before. After that, Thorpe soon became Carlisle's star football player, helping the team win 10 games out of 11 that season, including one against Penn State, their arch-rival.
In 1912, he took a break from football to compete in the Olympics, in Sweden. He competed in the pentathlon and the decathlon, 2 brand-new events that had never been featured in an Olympics before. In spite of having little or no experience in most of the events, and hardly training for them at all, Thorpe won gold medals in both events, the only athlete in history to do so. (Unfortunately, he was later stripped of his medals after being declared a professional for playing baseball one summer for a small salary. They were finally returned to his family in 1982.)
After the Olympics, he went back to playing football for Carlisle. One of their games was against West Point. Among the Army players that day was future president Dwight Eisenhower, who was tasked with blocking Thorpe. Eisenhower and a teammate slammed
into Thorpe, trying to take him out of the game. Thorpe wasn't fazed. When they tried the same tactic again, Thorpe stopped short, causing Eisenhower and his teammate to crash into each other, injuring them both. Carlisle beat West Point 27-6.
Thorpe continued to play sports until his retirement at age 41. His favorite was football, and his versatility at the game has never yet been matched by anyone. After he died in 1953, Eisenhower said, “Thorpe was able to do everything anyone else could. But he could do it better.”