I just finished Candice Millard’s “River of Doubt,” the story of former President Theodore Roosevelt’s perilous journey of a 940-mile uncharted tributary on the Amazon River that nearly cost him his life.
I’m not certain where Roosevelt stood in the measure of presidential success. However, there is no questioning his passion for physical fitness, competitive drive, exploration and a strange obsession to challenge death.
“River of Doubt,” a solid read we’ll get into in a minute, got me to thinking: Who were the most avid fitness-minded presidents of all time? A couple of years ago “Men’s Health” gave us its answer.
In no certain order the top five fitness advocates included George Washington, Theodore Roosevelt, Gerald Ford, George H. W. Bush and Ronald Reagan. John F. Kennedy, Barack Obama and George W. Bush were also listed.
It’s obvious that brain power, common sense, charisma and agenda are assumed presidential attributes but where does physical fitness rank?
JFK once said, “Physical fitness is not only one of the most important keys to a healthy body, it is the basis of dynamic and creative intellectual activity.” If so, I’ll put Theodore Roosevelt at the top of my list.
He built a boxing ring in the White House and sparred almost daily with anyone willing to take the challenge. He climbed the Matterhorn; swam the icy Potomac and at age 58 he volunteered to lead American troops into WWI, but President Wilson turned him down.
Perhaps his greatest achievement was spearheading a 1913-14 expedition to chart the Rio da Davida (River of Doubt). Unknowingly, it turned into a wild ride down countless, almost mountainous rapids and bouts with deadly piranha and 15-foot long black caimans, coral snakes, Indian attacks, malaria, starvation, unrelenting rain and oppressive heat.
Taking a spill from a canoe, Roosevelt injured his right leg and eventually life-threatening infection set in. Without proper medication, his condition worsened.
The virus spread and his temperature soared. Not knowing if civilization was near or far, party members felt the former president would surely die without prompt and proper help.
Eventually, the ominous River of Doubt was conquered. Three men perished, but Roosevelt and his co-expedition leader, Mariano da Silva Rondon, Brazil’s most famous explorer, became celebrated heroes along with 16 other survivors.
Advanced psychological studies revealed Roosevelt likely suffered from a type of bipolar disorder associated with alternating episodes of mania and depression. All of which gravitated toward a mix of extraordinary courageous but reckless behavior.
Ironically, it was this potential affliction that may have saved his life in his greatest challenge, conquering the black waters of the River of Doubt.
Ted Buss is a former sports and business editor at the Times Record News.
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