Kiphuth’s Ride to the Medal of Freedom: Part IX; The Rise of Japan, World War II

As seen through the eyes of Chuck Warner, Swimming World Contributor

NEW HAVEN, Connecticut, October 15. THIS is the ninth column in a series about the history of swimming. The sport's only Presidential Medal of Freedom winner was Robert John Herman Kiphuth. The famed coach at Yale University was selected for the prestigious award by President Kennedy. Just prior to Coach Kiphuth receiving this award in December of 1963, the President was shot and killed. We are presenting some snapshots of swimming history as thoughts that Coach Kiphuth might have had driving to the Medal of Freedom ceremonies.

As Coach Kiphuth drove across the George Washington Bridge he might have gazed up and down the Hudson River. The New York City skyline was magnificent in its height as well as breadth. Kiphuth loved grand experiences which is one of the reasons that the Yale Water Carnival was such a joy for him to produce and direct each year. But in those early years when the new Payne Whitney Gym housed the Carnival, it was also a time when the strength of the U.S. Olympic swimming teams was challenged. Coach Kiphuth was a patriot. He openly expressed his concern that America was too directed toward short course swimming and ill prepared to race as successfully in a long course pool in international competition.

In 1931 Coach Kiphuth made his first trip to Japan. The passion that the Japanese had for swimming was stunning. They hadn't begun participating in Olympic swimming competition until 1920, but were earnest in their desire to become more competitive. Nearly every year they invited the best swimmers in the world to perform exhibitions in their country. Johnny Weissmuller made several trips and became a model that Japanese coaches studied and attempted to train their swimmers toward. When Kiphuth took his loan swimmer to the Japanese pool for an exhibition in 1931 there were 40,000 fans in the stands.

At the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles, a youth brigade from Japan put on one of the most dominate swimming performances in men's swimming history. 14-year-old Kuzono Kitamura led a 1-2-3 sweep in the 1500-meter freestyle. 15-year-old Yasuji Miyazaki (58.20) teamed with 20-year-old Tasugo Kawaishi to finish 1-2 in the 100-meter freestyle.

Before they were finished the Japanese men would win five gold medals out of possible six, five silver medals out of possible six and add another two bronze medals.

What was the secret of the Japanese success? Studies done by Forbes Carlisle show Japanese coaches talking about the advantage of swimming with short strokes and having loose ankles to be good kickers. Johnny Weissmuller didn't swim with short strokes, but their observations about what made a good kick would be applicable today. The greatest discovery the Japanese seemed to have made was the benefits of hard work.

In Japan, for three months of training each year, they had swum twice a day covering 6-7,500 meters per day. This was an enormous increase from the 400-meter training days that Johnny Weissmuller and his coach Bill Bacharch had insisted was optimum. In the context of the 1930s, the Japanese showed that work does work.

American Helene Madison led a superb performance by the American women in 1932 in which they won four of the available five gold medals. By the 1936 Games, however, The Netherlands had overtaken the Americans to dominate women's swimming. The Japanese men were not as dominant but still the best in the world in Berlin.

The Olympics in Germany were more than a stage for sport. They were the opening act for World War II, the most widespread war in history, that was about to begin. Observing the Olympic track events was Germany Chancellor Adolf Hitler. Hitler's anti-Semitic beliefs were well known and his belief in the superiority of the German and Aryan racial superiority was being challenged by the performance of Jessie Owens in the sport of track and field. Owens was an African-American who eventually won four gold medals. But it was his second one that might have been the most remarkable. While Hitler looked on, German Luz Long was positioned to beat Owens for the gold medal in the long jump. Owens had faulted on his first two jumps taking off past the wooden plank on the track that marked the appropriate take off point. In a show of what has long been held as the 'true Olympic spirit' Long took a towel and laid it down a few inches or so before the wooden plank. Owens used the towel cue, performed legally and won the long jump.

Long was the first to greet Owens after the win. Jesse Owens' long jump world record stood for nearly 24 years. The two athletes maintained a friendship until Long was killed in World War II.

In 1937, the Japanese Emperor invaded China. In 1939, Germany invaded Poland. The War was on.

More than 100 million people joined and fought in the military during the next six years during the awful ordeal. One was Yale's Dick Baribault. Baribault was a member of Yale's record setting 400 freestyle relay when he enlisted into the United States Air Force. Why enlist? He believed in the cause of defeating Hitler but it was also evident that he would be drafted to fight. By enlisting there was a chance to choose your military branch of service.

“Your best chance to survive was to stay away from the land battles that the Army would be engaged in,” Dick said years later. Eventually he returned to Yale to swim. “After machine gun battles in the air against the Germans, nothing Kiphuth had us do in training scared me.”

The 1940 and 1944 Olympics were canceled due to the War. The Japanese were banned from participating in the 1948 Games opening the door for the most dominant performance by an Olympic men's team in history. The head coach for the U.S. for that team? The man steering his car down the New Jersey Turnpike in the direction of Washington D.C. Robert John Herman Kiphuth.

Story help from the work of Pete Kennedy and Forbes Carlisle.

Chuck Warner is contributor for Swimming World Magazine and author of Four Champions: One Gold Medal. Chuck's latest book titled And Then They Won Gold, is now available for purchase.

Kiphuth's Ride to the Medal of Freedom: Part I
Kiphuth's Ride to the Medal of Freedom: Part II
Kiphuth's Ride to the Medal of Freedom: Part III
Kiphuth's Ride to the Medal of Freedom: Part IV
Kiphuth's Ride to the Medal of Freedom: Part V
Kiphuth's Ride to the Medal of Freedom: Part VI
Kiphuth's Ride to the Medal of Freedom: Part VII
Kiphuth's Ride to the Medal of Freedom: Part VIII

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