Kiphuth’s Ride to the Medal of Freedom: Part V; The Making of Swimming’s Leader

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

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

NEW HAVEN, Connecticut, July 11. IN 1920, the development of the sport of swimming was in its infancy compared to its status in the world today. Coach Bob Kiphuth's revolutionary dryland training went against the norm and moved training forward while he experienced resistance from the 'old guard” who insisted that the land work would destroy the necessary attributes of a swimmer's body that the experts of the day saw as loose, supple and even flabby.

What would those experts think of Ryan Lochte's current program of turning over tires and dragging chains?

The sport had the potential for recognition in America and around the world, but it needed much more than just training development. It needed a leader– an ambassador. The sport needed someone to put it in front of the public and turn a spotlight on it. Up until now the primary leaders in swimming were administrators. Coaches were simply trainers of swimmers, not to be seen or heard when it came to the organization or promotion of the sport. (This, of course, is still the case in many parts of the world.) But Bob Kiphuth changed all of that.

As he drove his car up the entrance ramp onto I-95 and turned it southeast in the direction of Washington D.C., he might have seen the signs for Fairfield, Greenwich and Stamford, all towns that he had toured with swimming exhibitions. Even after his retirement in 1959 as Yale coach, Kiphuth continued to showcase the sport. A part of the commitment that young Connecticut swimmers made to accept an invitation to train at the Yale facilities with Kiphuth was for those swimmers to help put on exhibitions at the local summer clubs. But his role as ambassador began in 1921 when his squad journeyed 8000 miles from New Haven, Ct., to Hawaii and 8000 miles back.

Coach Kiphuth's success at Yale was immediate with an undefeated record and even two world records from the squad members in 1921. After the 1921 season, team captain Loren Thurston approached Kiphuth about going on a swimming tour that would culminate in Hawaii. In a world without television, it was the inaugural trip that Kiphuth took to showcase the sport — dozens would follow.

Yale provided some seed money for the tour as did some athletic clubs along the route to the Islands. In order to raise more funds the squad of 13 provided a showcase performance at Yale's spring alumni day. The exposure of a gracious, articulate leader for the sport and the beauty and athleticism of the swimmers was a key to the development of swimming at Yale and subsequently around the United States.

The squad trained in open water in Long Island Sound beginning June 25 and began their tour on July 4, 1921. At each stop across the USA they put on a swimming exhibition for Yale alumni. They performed in Chicago, Milwaukee, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Santa Barbara, Los Angeles and more. At each stop on the transcontinental trek the Yale Alumni wined and dined the 15-member delegation often times at luxurious estates. Kiphuth was selling swimming like a presidential candidate doing a whistle stop tour; one city at a time.

Along the journey Kiphuth also became more educated in ways that helped his coaching and shaped his vision for the sport's future. He witnessed how Swimming was conducted in programs that trained year round, the superiority of the mature athletes, the need for the standardization of pool size and lengths and most importantly he recognized his capacity to move people toward an appreciation for the sport; especially wealthy and articulate Yale alumni who could influence others.

Finally the squad boarded the ship SS Manoa to cross the Pacific. Since the vessel had no pool Kiphuth commanded land exercises for the squad throughout the trip. When they arrived in Hawaii they were greeted by a variety of dignitaries including Olympic Swimming Champion Duke Kahanamoku. The Yalies took on all comers at the new University of Hawaii pool and came out on top. This was despite the impressive world record by Hawaiian teen Pua Kealoha of 53.0 in the 100-yard freestyle. However in open water competition that followed they were bested by two local clubs.

The response to Kiphuth's development of swimming at Yale made such an impact that about 100 swimmers tried out for the 1922 team. The coach offered to help anyone at the school that wanted to prepare for the tryout in their swim lesson program. Kiphuth was so committed to the physical development of the students that he didn't want to limit the squad size, so he offered a noon, a 3:00 and a 5:00 training session.

Even though he was barely out of his “internship” phase of learning what coaching swimming was, he quickly developed the courage to lead more than just a team of 100 swimmers. He could see that the collegiate program was inconsistent with the American international program. The Olympics included the 200, 400 and 1500 freestyle for men. The college program limited events to a distance of 220 yards.
On March 21, 1922 the New York Times ran a headline that said, “YALE COACH WOULD ADD 440-YARD SWIM.” The sub headline was “Yale coach says collegiate program turns out mainly sprinters.”

Throughout the article, Kiphuth made his case for the importance of endurance in saving lives and finished with the statement, “…for the sake of the future of safety and the future of this country in international sport, collegiate swimming should add a middle distance event.”

While many college coaches today battle for recruits and victories, Kiphuth did it all; he began to develop a powerhouse at Yale and expose the sport to America at the same time. His energy in the 1920s helps every swimmer, coach and the sport as whole today. And he was just getting started.
While President Kennedy had advocated for sending a man to the moon, perhaps he considered the attributes of this man Kiphuth who had helped bring the sport of Swimming so far as one of the sports primary leaders during his more than 40 years at Yale.

Note: Contributing information to write this column is the work of Pete Kennedy, Jeff Farrell and Terry Warner.

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.

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