Bernard Wefers is a six time national champion in track and field, a former world record holder in the 100 yards and the 220 yards, a coach of the NYAC track and field team and a 1982 NYAC Hall of Fame inductee.
Wefers was born on February 19th, 1873 in Lawrence, Massachusetts. He later attended Boston College and studied medicine at Georgetown University.
Before he joined the NYAC, Wefers was a member of the rival Knickerbocker Athletic Club, formerly known as the Manhattan Athletic Club. In the 1880s and 90s, the two clubs fiercely competed against one another for the title of the best athletic club in the city. The rivalry has since been referred to as the “athletic war,” although the battles were not limited to the track or gymnasium. In 1885, the Manhattan Athletic Club erected a six-story clubhouse on Madison Avenue and 45th Street, attempting to eclipse the NYAC’s first City House on Sixth Avenue and 55th Street.
Nevertheless, the primary means of competition was recruiting the best athletes and coaches. In that regard, the Knickerbocker Athletic Club reigned supreme, for they had Bernie Wefers.
Wefers was an athlete without equal. According to legend, NYAC founding father Bill Curtis once witnessed Wefers run 100 yards in 9.4 seconds; however, he refused to confirm the time, commenting that “no man could run that fast.” Although his record time was debatable, there was no question that Wefers was the fastest man in the world. Naturally, the NYAC did everything in its power to get him to wear the winged foot.
In the mid 1890s, the Club’s efforts paid off: Wefers defected to the NYAC, a decision which reverberated through the world of track and field. Harry Cornish, the athletic director of the Knickerbocker Athletic Club, penned an article in Harper’s Weekly in which he accused former NYAC President Bartow S. Weeks of paying Wefers to join the Club – a brazen violation of the amateur code.
The veracity of this accusation is unknown. What is known, however, is that Wefers’ move caused the KAC to implode. Roland Molineux, a champion gymnast for the Knickerbocker Athletic Club and close friend of Bartow Weeks, tried to poison Cornish with cyanide. In what became known as the first “trial of the century”, Molineux was found not guilty, thanks to the brilliant defense of Weeks. Resignations on the board of governors of the Knickerbocker Athletic Club followed, and within a few years they declared bankruptcy.
Wefers’ most significant moment as an NYAC member came during the 1895 dual meet against the London Athletic Club. At the time, British athletes were considered the best in the world, far superior than Americans the realm of track and field. Therefore, when the London Athletic Club agreed to come to New York for a dual meet, the NYAC had an opportunity to compete against the greatest athletes in the world.
The meet was highly anticipated and garnered much attention on both sides of the Atlantic. Before long, it was viewed as a competition between Britain and the United States, not the London AC and the New York Athletic Club. The stage was set for the world’s first great international track and field meet. As the star athlete for the NYAC, Wefers did not disappoint.
On September 21st, 1895, in front of 10,000 spectators at Manhattan field, Wefers had a performance for the ages. He won the 100 yards with a time of 9.8 seconds – which tied the world record set by J. Owens, Jr. – and set a world record in the 220 yards with a time of 21.6 seconds. By the competition’s end, the NYAC swept all 11 events; the New York Athletic Club Journal referred to the shocking upset as “England’s Waterloo.” Wefers’ performance dispelled any doubts that the United States was world’s preeminent track and field powerhouse. An editorial in the New York Sun commented: “We not only beat the British; we beat the world.”
The dual meet between the NYAC and the London Athletic Club was considered far more significant than Modern Olympic Games, set to begin the following year in Athens, Greece. For that reason, Wefers decided to forgo the Games entirely. Despite his absence from the Olympic Games, Wefers continued to compete on the national level. Between 1895 and 1897, Wefers won six US outdoor track and field championships, three in the 100 yards and 220 yards. After he retired from competition, Wefers spent 45 years as the coach of the NYAC track and field team.
Bernard Wefers died on April 18th, 1957, at the age of 84.