Luigi de Breda, a U.S. citizen of Italian origin, was the son of the personal butler of Popes Leo XIII and Pius X. In 1904 he participated in the sport of water polo in the Olympic Games at St. Louis in the United States, where he won the gold medal. The Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano recently published an article recounting the story of Breda, who “at least ideally, made Vatican City present at the Games.”
Amidst the expectations over the opening of the Olympic Games in Beijing, L’Osservatore recalled the story of the son of Francis Montague Handley, who was the private butler of Pope Leo XIII and Pope Pius X.
Luigi was born on February 14, 1874 in Rome. According to the article by Maria Maggi, “He was friendly, with ruffled hair, physically well-built and a gentleman. He spoke Italian, English, French, Spanish and a little Latin and Greek.”
Luigi de Breda was not able to participate in the St. Louis Games as an Italian, despite having lived in Italy for 22 years, but only as an American under the name of Lou Handley.
Luigi, or Lou, used to swim in the Tevere River when it was still uncontaminated by pollution, Maggi explained, since at that time there were no swimming pools. “Historian Bill Mallon in his Encyclopedia of American Olympians would later recall that Lou triumphed in a mixed competition that consisted of six tests: walking, water polo, horsemanship, cycling, canoeing and swimming. Lou had already set a US swimming record in the 440-yard freestyle.”
“He was exceptional, above all, in water polo. He perfected a new shot, raising himself out of the water, which came to be known as ‘the salmon jump’,” Maggi wrote.
She noted that Lou “played water polo very well much before Johnny Weismuller—famous for playing the role of Tarzan—who won the bronze at the Paris Games of 1924, or Carlo Pedersoli—known more by the Italians as Bud Spencer—who was a key player in Italy’s 5-0 victory over Spain in 1955.”
Luigi Breda was the first coach for women’s water polo at the Anveres Games of 1920 and again at the Paris Games in 1924. He also joined the Swimming Association of New York and remained a member for 40 years. He wrote five books on sports and contributed to writing the section on swimming for the Encyclopedia Britannica. He died in New York on December 28, 1956.