Kiphuth’s Ride to the Medal of Freedom: Part VI; Meeting Swimming’s Babe Ruth

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
Kiphuth's Ride to the Medal of Freedom: Part V

NEW HAVEN, Connecticut, July 20. IF you've been following our journey of Robert John Herman Kiphuth's ride to the Presidential Medal Of Freedom he received in 1963 and you know Connecticut geography, you know he took a wrong turn onto I-95! Kiphuth, of course, had to turn southwest, not southeast, on his drive toward Washington D.C.

President Kennedy, who nominated him for the award, was known to be able devour an immense amount of information from a multitude of newspapers in a short time. In 1922, while Coach Kiphuth was developing into swimming's leader he was also a student like Kennedy. Before he became the Yale swim coach he studied the human body and then studied the swimmers in the old Carnegie Pool that he managed at Yale. His swimmers recognized his voracious appetite for reading and learning. Over his career it became an annual tradition for his team to present him with a book at the end of each season. In 1922 he had the greatest swimmer of his time to learn from. It was swimming's version of Babe Ruth: Johnny Weissmuller.

Weissmuller was born in 1904 and with some mystery about where. A story is told that he was born in Austria or Hungary but used his brother's name that was born in the USA so he could swim for the US Olympic team. While it's unclear about his place of birth, it is common knowledge that he grew up in Illinois and didn't get started in competitive swimming until his teen years. By chance Johnny was fortunate to swim a race in front of one of the great swim trainers of the day, Bill Bacharach.

The word 'trainer' rather than coach is used because our view is that Kiphuth advanced the role of 'trainers' into 'coaches' in the United States. The distinction is made between the two to explain that trainers like Bacharch were content to merely train swimmers. Kiphuth was a leader in all areas of the sport including: administration, promotion and programming.

In Weissmuller's autobiography Swimming The American Crawl published in 1930, Bill Bacharach is pictured with his star swimmer. Bacharach is a rotund man and stands nearly as tall as the 6' 3″ Weissmuller. The coach is clad in a bathrobe, black boots and has a half smoked cigar in his teeth. This image is quite a contrast to Kiphuth who lunched on the Yale campus with other professors in a coat and tie.

Evidently Bill Bacharach was an observer of fish and believed Weissmuller's tall thin body and natural efficiency in the water had the potential for great swimming speed. When he began working with him, the coach would not allow his prot?g? to compete for many months until he was trained properly to do so. At first Bacharach instructed Weissmuller to swim at low speeds of approximately sixty percent effort while he improved his efficiency. Gradually they added speed work which was done one heat at a time. Their ideal total training volume per practice session (not per swim!) was 400 yards.

On July 9 of 1922, Johnny Weissmuller stunned the swimming world when he demolished Duke Kahanamoku's 100-meter freestyle world record of 1:00.4 swimming the distance in a time of 58.6. It was the first of 67 world records that Weissmuller set and that summer he began an incredible run of 52 individual national titles. Johnny Weissmuller was to swimming in the 1920s what Michael Phelps has been to the sport over the last 10 years.

In the 1924 and 1928 Olympics Weissmuller won a total of five gold medals. Making his titles and medals even more impressive was the fact that until 1964 the men's Olympic freestyle events were limited to the 100, 400 and 1500 individual races and the 4 x 200 freestyle relays. Beginning in 1924 the women's program duplicated the men's with two exceptions. The ladies did not have a long freestyle event and their relay was a 4 x 100 freestyle relay. In the years between 1924 and 1956 there were two other events conducted at the Olympics, the 100-meter backstroke and the 200-meter breaststroke. A butterfly event wasn't added until 1956 and then an individual medley event in 1964. At the 1964 Tokyo Olympics the 200 freestyle was also added.

In 1924 Johnny Weissmuller won Olympic gold medals in the 100 freestyle, 400 freestyle and 800 freestyle relay. In 1928 he was again victorious in the 100 and the 800 freestyle relay. During the course of his career from 1922 to 1929 he swam open water and pool races and it is documented that he won every single freestyle race he ever swam; a record even Babe Ruth and Michael Phelps couldn't compare to. He also picked up a bronze medal in the 1924 Olympics in water polo. The only other American swimmer in history to win a medal in swimming (1976) and water polo (1984) is Tim Shaw.
By 1928 Weissmuller's lowered his world record in the 100 freestyle was to 57.4, a mark that would stand another ten years.

Johnny Weissmuller was a showman just as was Coach Kiphuth. Perhaps Kiphuth learned from watching the great Weissmuller. When swimming's greatest athlete retired he signed a contract with MGM to make a series of movies. His role as Tarzan The Ape Man was a huge success and pummeled the Rocky series of sequels with 11 more productions. As Weissmuller grew older he stayed in the jungle as an actor but put clothes on and made 13 movies in the role of Jungle Jim. Eventually the role turned into a television series.

At the same time Johnny Weissmuller was beginning to make the transition from swimming star to movie star Kiphuth was growing in his own stature as a recognized authority in swimming. He took the time to drive to New York for meetings of the AAU and befriended a New York Time reporter that was a former swim coach. These would both prove beneficial in helping him move the sport forward. In 1928, Kiphuth was awarded the position of Head Olympic Coach for the USA Women's Olympic Swimming Team. They competed in the Games in Amsterdam and Kiphuth watched Weissmuller perform for the last time at the Olympics in those Games.

In order for Yale to position itself as the center of the swimming world, it needed something special to go along with its extraordinary coach and leader. Mr. Kiphuth had built respect within the university and tremendous alumni support around the country. He had the support to build a new swimming facility and perhaps a cathedral all at the same time, in the same building and like no one had ever seen before.
The amazing new building would be a place so extraordinary that six of the next seven world records in Weissmuller's specialty, the 100 freestyle, would be broken there. How is a possible to build such a palace for swimming at a University of just 5000 students? That is our next story.

Story support includes Dr. Pete Kennedy's Doctoral Thesis on Kiphuth conducted at Ohio State University.

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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