Editor’s note: We are reposting this great feature by Chuck Warner originally written as part of a series of articles about the great Yale coach Bob Kiphuth, highlighting a moment in Kiphuth’s career that intersected with the rise of World War II. It fits well with this Memorial Day Weekend to take a look back.
By Chuck Warner
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 USA 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 endlessly. When Kiphuth took a 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 dominating swimming performances in men’s swimming history. Kuzono Kitamura, 14, led a 1-2-3 sweep in the 1500-meter freestyle. Yasuji Miyazaki, 15, 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 a 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.
For three months of training each year in Japan, they had swum twice a day covering 6,000-7,500 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 optimal. 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 over taken 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. Observing the Olympic track events was German 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 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 takeoff 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.
Luz Long was the first to greet Owens after the win. Jesse Owen’s 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 over the next six years during the awful ordeal. One was Yale’s Dick Baribault. Baribault was a member of Yale’s record-setting 4 x 100 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 dominate performance by an Olympic men’s team in history. The head coach for the USA in 1948? 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.