As seen through the eyes of Chuck Warner, Swimming World Contributor
NEW HAVEN, Connecticut, June 12. MR. Kiphuth pulled up to the stop light out front of the Payne Whitney Gym on the corner of Broadway and Tower Parkway. It was a beautiful early December day with a bright blue sky and the sun shimmering off the snow piles that lined the New Haven sidewalks.
Each time he left the magnificent athletic facility, he felt a mild sense of freedom from the responsibility of maintaining it. It was a $7 million dollar gift from the Whitney family when it was built in 1933. While he was a charming ambassador for swimming outside the building, inside he had served for nearly 30 years as a tyrant insisting upon respect, cleanliness and athletic excellence.
Kiphuth never went to college, yet Yale had granted him a full professorship and accorded him the title of Professor of Physical Education. He also served a short stint as athletic director. Unofficially, he was referred to by another nickname around the New Haven campus –“Mr. Yale” As odd as it may seem, it was the swimming coach that was the most well-known figure in a community of Nobel Prize winners and lofty scholars.
The thought of receiving the Medal of Freedom from President Johnson was daunting but it was with a heavy heart he anticipated the experience. President Kennedy had ignited a sense of honor and service in America with his initiatives like the Peace Corps and resuming the Medal of Freedom that President Harry Truman had started in 1945 but was subsequently left dormant by his successors. Although he was elected as the youngest President in American history at age 43, John Kennedy saw the merits of rewarding those that had devoted themselves to bringing the world closer together. He was the one that recognized that Kiphuth was such a man and nominated him for the honor.
Kennedy had been a swimmer. He had attended Choate Prep School just 40 minutes up the road from Yale during his high school years. Those years from 1932-35 were great days of Yale Swimming. Although young Jack was a student with only a 68 percent score at Choate he was admitted to Harvard with the strong motivation of a family legacy given his father was a member of the class of 1912. Kennedy went on to swim at Harvard University until he graduated in 1940. Surely, he was impressed with the excellence and tradition of Kiphuth's great program at Yale.
Just 12 days earlier the President had been shot and killed in Dallas. It was an event that stunned America for decades and left a wound that has seemed to last to date. The late President would receive the Medal of Freedom posthumously with Kiphuth in two days, Dec. 6, 1963.
History was important to Mr. Kiphuth. He loved studying it and reflecting on ideas of the past to help envision the future. Surely he must have been devastated by such a despicable act, as all of us were.
In Kiphuth's bestselling book published in 1942 simply called Swimming he begins with recounting some swimming history. He offers the record of Captain Matthew Webb, who in 1875 swam the English Channel from Dover to Calais, using primarily the breaststroke. His time was 21 hours and 45 minutes. The choice of stroke was widely discussed at the time. Kiphuth noted that 50 years later an American girl named Miss Gertrude Ederle used the crawl stroke and did the crossing in 14 hours and 31 minutes, an amazing improvement.
Of course the lore of swimming history dates back much further than that. Much of swimming's history is preserved at the International Swimming Hall of Fame in Ft. Lauderdale. The tales of Benjamin Franklin swimming in the Charles River as a boy in the 1720s are there. The great inventor and Kiphuth surely would have loved to enjoy tea together had they lived in the same era.
Swimming coaches today have looked back at Kiphuth's work and sighed that there is 'nothing new under the sun.' Ben created wooden fins to help him swim faster and held plates in his hands for paddles. Kiphuth's creations were massive and exceeded Franklin's aquatic concepts. He had witnessed and steered the sport forward through much of his career when it had been limited to three strokes: crawl, backstroke and breaststroke.
The stop light turned green and the 5' 5″ coach pressed the gas pedal in his prized car to merge into the traffic onto Broadway. His drive would take many hours, but give him time to enjoy the scenery of southwestern Connecticut, New York, Philadelphia and much more. Most importantly it would give him time to adjust to the pain of losing a president and further consider why this swimming coach could have been thought of so highly by President Kennedy to be honored in this way.
Chuck Warner is contributor for Swimming World Magazine and author of Four Champions: One Gold Medal. Chuck is currently working on his next book titled And Then They Won Gold, which will be published later this month.