Excelling at a sport doesn't come lightly. Those who do will dedicate their lives – and sometimes the lives of their families – to ensure that they are the best that they can possibly be. The recently passed Olympics have told stories of dedication and passion which is so unbelievable, that us normal people can only stand in awe and admiration for those who have climbed to the pinnacle of their chosen sport.
Nowadays, the number of people who participate in multiple sports at a high level is extremely small. Rebecca Romero (cycling and rowing), Bo Jackson (baseball and American football), Sarah Storey (cycling and swimming) and Sonny Bill Williams (rugby and boxing) are four of the most famous examples in modern sport; whilst it also used to be quite common for Englishmen to combine football in the winter with cricket in the summer – CB Fry, Denis Compton and...erm...Ian Botham, being the most famous names to do so.
Many others who have tried have invariably left their favoured sport to try their hand at an alternative, only to not quite achieve the same success. Michael Jordan's foray into the world of baseball and Dwain Chambers' attempt at gridiron being prime examples of this, before their eventual returns to basketball and athletics.
However as I posed the question on Twitter, one name, rather unsurprisingly wasn't mentioned - Waclaw Kuchar isn't a name familiar with many. Born in September 1897 in the small Polish town of Lancut, Kuchar had a playing career spanning 22 years, and during this time competed in no less than FOUR different sports – excelling at each one.
Having been brought up in a relatively wealthy family, Waclaw and his brothers were introduced to various different sports by their father, an avid sportsman himself. A young Wacek would watch his older brothers practice Gymnastics, and return home to copy the manoeuvres in the family's back yard.
His footballing skills were picked up at a young age by practising kicking a tennis ball against the wall of the family home. His persistence paid off quickly, when at the age of just 14, Waclaw began his sporting journey in the eastern city of Lwow (now known as Lviv), joining his brothers at one of the city's biggest football clubs Pogon Lwow. Making his début in a friendly game against Pogon Stryj, the youngster proceeded to grab a hat-trick in a 7-1 mauling of their opponents.
Quickly becoming a key part of Pogon's side, Kuchar helped the Pogonczycy to a third place finish in the 1913 Galician Championship behind champions Cracovia and Wisla Krakow. The following year, the club were occupying the same position as the First World War broke out, bringing down an early curtain on the league season.
Even though the Great War concluded in 1918, the hostilities were far from over. With the changing borders, the area containing Lwow found itself under a dispute between Poland and Ukraine. Having been drafted into the Polish Army, Kuchar quickly worked his way up to the position of Captain; and during both the Polish-Ukrainian war and the following Polish-Soviet war, he picked up a number of military medals, most notably the “Polish Badge of Honour” and the “Cross of Valour” for his participation in the defence of Lwow.
As 1920 rolled around, the 23-year old Kuchar decided to compete against the best athletes that Poland had to offer in multiple disciplines. The inaugural Polish Athletics Championships, taking part in Pogon Lwow's home stadium, saw Waclaw emerge as the fastest man in both the 800m and the 110m Hurdles, as well as being a part of the successful 4x400m relay team. Kuchar's performance in the 800m was also good enough to qualify him for the 1920 Summer Olympics in Antwerp, however with the war against Soviet Russia breaking out, Poland were forced to withdraw all athletes from the games.
1920 had also seen the return of competitive football to the city of Lwow following World War One. Waclaw continued his role as an important part of the Pogon side, which led the way in the Lwow City Championships before the war forced its cancellation.
With the hostilities against Russia finally coming to an end, 1921 finally saw all sporting competitions in Poland return to normal. An attack spearheaded by Kuchar helped Pogon to a first-place finish in the Lwow Championships, earning the club a place in the Polish Championships. But even with eight goals from Kuchar in their eight games, Pogon only managed to pick up three victories in the competition – eventually finishing fourth behind Warta Poznan, Polonia Warszawa, and champions Cracovia.
Kuchar also returned to the Polish Athletics Championships in August aiming to add to the three gold medals picked up the previous year. Although two of his events – the 4x400m relay and the 110m hurdles – were not included in the championships, Kuchar doubled his tally by the end of the competitions. Although seven seconds slower than the previous year, Kuchar managed to defend his 800m title, whilst also finishing first in both the high jump and triple jump – the latter an event in which he narrowly missed out on gold during 1920's games.
Although his domestic footballing season ended in disappointment, there was more football ahead for Kuchar before the year was out. In mid-December, he found his way into the first-ever Polish national team for their game against Hungary – however they lost the inaugural tie 1-0 in Budapest.
1922 was to prove much better on the football field for Wacek. Now 25 years-of-age, the striker netted 21 times in eight games as Pogon became Polish Champions for the first time. More national team appearances were to follow; but with the year's Athletics Championships moving to Warsaw, Kuchar decided not to take part – opting to try his hand at Speed Skating instead!
In his first season on the ice, Kuchar became Polish Champion in the multi-discipline Speed Skating event – composed of the 500m, 1500m, 5000m, and 10,000m events. Between 1922 and 1931, he would go on to become the national champion for the multi-discipline events on a further 5 occasions – a record eventually broken in 1947 by Janusz Kalbarczyk.
Following a year away from athletics, 1923 turned out to be Kuchar's most successful year. His gold on the ice rink was soon followed by more success on both the track, and the field. A second national high jump gold was followed by a win in both the 400m hurdles and the decathlon.
On top of his victories in Athletics, Kuchar also led Pogon Lwow to the 1923 Polish Championship. Following a convincing victory in the Lwow division, and picking up maximum points from their six Eastern Group games (scoring 42 and conceding just three in the process), Pogon met Wisla Krakow in the two-game national finals. Despite a comprehensive 3-0 victory in Lwow, the Leopolitans were defeated 2-1 in Krakow, calling for a third game to be played in neutral Warsaw. With Kuchar leading the Pogon attack, a 2-1 victory saw Pogon retain their national title.
With the 1924 Olympics in Paris causing the cancellation of the Polish Championships, Pogon were forced to wait another year for competitive football. However, an in-form Waclaw found his way onto the train to France, to participate for his country in the Olympic football competition. Although the competition was massively unsuccessful – a 5-0 defeat to Hungary in the first round eliminating Poland from the competition before it had really even begun – Kuchar still found time to win his second successive National Championship gold medal for the decathlon.
With domestic football back on the agenda in 1925, Kuchar decided that it was time to hang up his running shoes for good. His decision was quickly justified, as Pogon won their third straight national title with ease – dropping just a single point on their way to lifting the trophy.
As the national champion in Speed Skating, Kuchar was also entitled to compete in the 1925 European Speed Skating Championships, held in St. Moritz. Despite it not being his most-favoured sport, the Pole eventually battled his way to an impressive 7th place finish.
Now competing in just two sports after his decision to quit athletics, Kuchar decided in 1926 to try his hand at another sport – Ice Hockey. With the National Ice Hockey association establishing a national league Kuchar honed his skills on the ice with Pogon's hockey team in the winter, before helping the football side lift their fourth – and ultimately last – national championships in the summer. With his multi-eventing prowess very much in mind, the Polish sports newspaper 'Przeglad Sportowy' named Kuchar their 'Sportsman of the Year' for 1926 – the first ever person to pick up the honour.
However with financial problems starting to cripple the Pogon football team, the Leopolitans found themselves unable to test themselves against big foreign clubs in 1927 – being forced to play friendly games only against Polish teams. A fourth-place finish in the newly established National League was as high as Pogon could muster, and their golden generation slowly began to wilt.
Even though the footballing trophies began to dry up, 1926 wasn't the last success of Kuchar in team competition. With his new-found Ice Hockey career blossoming, the striker helped his Pogon side to the Polish vice-championship in both 1929 and 1930. He also picked up 9 caps for the national Ice Hockey team, helping them to a second-placed finish at the 1929 European Championships. Before his career on the ice finished in the mid-30's, Wacek did manage to pick up one last trophy – the Polish national Ice Hockey championship in 1933, which was shared with Legia Warszawa.
Although his footballing career continued until 1934, Kuchar never picked up another major honour with Pogon. His international career had come to an end in 1928, with a 3-2 loss to Czechoslovakia. In his seven years of wearing the Polish White Eagle on his chest, the multi-talented Kuchar had picked up 23 caps, scoring five goals in the process.
The very definition of a 'one-club man'; bar a few years-spell in the army, Waclaw's entire 22-year career was spent at Pogon Lwow. During this time, he played in a total of 1052 games, scoring an almost-unbelievable 1065 goals.
When his playing career finally came to an end, straying too far from the sport he loved wasn't on his mind. After a few years as a referee and a sports official, Wacek took the position of head coach of Dynamo Lwow – a newly established team – in the early 1940s. But with the national borders being redrawn after World War Two, all Poles in Lwow – including the man who had made the town his home for over thirty years – were forced westwards.
Originally settling in the former German area of Silesia, Wacek had a key role in establishing one of the region's biggest football clubs – Polonia Bytom. Assisted by more of Pogon's ex-players and supporters, he took the managerial role during 1946.
Just one year later, Kuchar was appointed the head coach of the Polish national team – a position he held until 1948. During his reign, he presided over one of the country's greatest victories of the decade – a 3-1 victory over a much-fancied Czechoslovak side in Warsaw. With his time as national coach at an end, Wacek decided to stay in the capital, becoming the coach of Legia Warszawa in 1949 – a position that lasted until 1953 – before his switch to their cross-town rivals Polonia.
Following his death in 1981, Kuchar was honoured with a burial at the Powazki Military Cemetery in Warsaw, in tribute to his bravery during his time in the army. On the thirtieth anniversary of his passing, he was also honoured by the No. 54 Elementary School in Bytom - becoming its patron saint.
He may not be as famous as Kazimierz Deyna, Grzegorz Lato or Zbigniew Boniek, but Waclaw Kuchar was an integral part of establishing football – as well as other sports – in Poland. His story may have been slowly forgotten over time, but now if you are ever asked to name a sports-person who has competed at a high level in multiple sports, the five-foot, six-inch Polish striker should be the first name on the tip of your tongue.
Ryan is a regular at IBWM and you can read more of his excellent work at EKSTRAKLASAreview.