FORT LAUDERDALE, Florida, April 4. WITH 15 world records broken at the FINA World Championships, ISHOF CEO Bruce Wigo had a chance to talk with one of the greatest record breakers in swimming history – Alan Ford. The man who broke Johnny Weissmuller's record in the 100 yard freestyle, a record that stood for 16 years.
In February of 2007, Ford became the latest swimming great to donate his scrapbook to the Henning Library. ISHOF's CEO, Bruce Wigo, recently visited with Alan and reminisced with him about his career as one of the great sprint swimmers of all time.
If Johnny Weissmuller was the Cadillac of Swimmers, then Alan Ford was at least his own namesake, quick on the pick-up, tight on his turns, and able to get off the blocks from start to high in record time. Ford was his own man but his legacy is that he'll always be known as the swimmer who finally broke Johnny Weissmuller's record in the 100 yard freestyle. He did it on Feb. 13, 1943, in New Haven, Ct., with a 50.6 clocking for 100 yards. Weissmuller's 51 flat, set at Ann Arbor, Mich., on April 5, 1927, had stood against all comers for 16 years. Ford gained milestone immortality on his own right 13 months later. On March 18, 1944 at New Haven, he was the first man in the world to swim 100 yards under 50 seconds. It was eight more years before Ohio State's Dick Cleveland became the second man in history to go under 50 seconds.
ISHOF: Where and when did you learn to swim?
AF: I grew up in the Panama Canal Zone. My father worked for the Canal Zone as did his father before him. My grandfather was a locomotive engineer who moved to Panama in 1907 to help build the Canal. He was given a couple of medals from President Roosevelt. I don't remember when I started swimming, but swimming was an important part of life in the Canal Zone. There were so many rivers, lakes, beaches and every town had a pool. All the kids swam and we had a coach who really knew how to keep us interested in swimming. He organized a lot of meets and he would go around and get businesses to give us prizes, like samples of toothpaste and soap. There were also a lot of famous people passing through the Canal, and he made sure we got to meet them, like Clark Gable and Johnny Weissmuller. In 1931 Weissmuller and Stubby Kruger passed through canal on their way to Hollywood. I was eight years old at the time and remember winning a ribbon, given to me by Weissmuller himself. Weissmuller and Stubby Kruger also put on an exhibition of swimming and the comedy routine that I later saw them perform at the Billy Rose Aquacade in 1939. That was very special.
ISHOF: How did you end up at Mercersburg Academy and Yale?
AF: When I was about 16, Ecuador won the South American Swimming Championships. They invited our team and a team of college all-stars from the States to go down for a meet. Michigan's Mike Peppe was the coach of the US team. At about the same time, my father was very unhappy with me. He thought I adapted too much of the Canal Zone lifestyle and he was right. I wasn't doing well in school and when I wasn't swimming or playing baseball, I was chasing girls. Peppe told my dad I would have to do better in school if I wanted to go to college. He suggested sending me to Mercersburg Academy in Pennsylvania where "King" John Miller was the coach. Miller got the nickname "King" from John Macionis (1936 Olympic bronze medalist in the 400m freestyle) because he was a no nonsense kind of guy and whatever he said was the law. Miller was also a great admirer of Bob Kiphuth and Kiphuth's training methods. Kiphuth was the coach at Yale, the great college swimming team of the period and it wasn't long before that was where I decided I wanted to go. So, I worked my tail off in the classroom and that's where I ended up.
ISHOF: What was Bob Kiphuth like?
AF: Bob Kiphuth was a very learned, self-educated man. I had a great rapport with Bob. He was a prolific reader and was knowledgeable on almost every subject: art, architecture, history, psychology. He was always surrounded by interesting people and exposed us to them. I'm not sure what his background was in swimming. His expertise was in physical conditioning and he was a tough taskmaster. He was also a great motivator. If he told you could do something, you believed him and this just wasn't in the pool. Bob was a great coach because he always stressed that there was more to life than swimming. If someone on the team wasn't doing well in the classroom, he would point to some former great Yale athlete (usually a football player) who tried to live on their sports laurels after graduating and ended up a failure. When it came to swimming form and stroke work, he left that to Harry Burke.
ISHOF: Who was Harry Burke?
AF: Harry Burke was one of Kiphuth's assistants who had an unusual mind and understanding of swimming. In some ways he was the complete opposite of Kiphuth. Burke was not educated or strict like Bob. He was a likeable guy, always with an interesting story or joke to tell and how he got to Yale was a great story in itself. He may or may not have graduated from high school, I don't know, but he worked at the Winchester Arms factory in Hartford. After a few years he got sick factory work and decided to travel around the country hopping on and off trains whenever he felt like it. One day, as he was waiting for a train to stop, he overheard a fellow traveler calling out numbers. "One million, three-hundred seventy-two thousand four-hundred sixty eight….one million, five-hundred thousand and ninety-two." "What are you talking about Buddy?" asked Burke. "That's the sum of the numbers on the boxcars," the man replied. Burke immediately recognized the guy as a savant and Burke became his agent. After a few years of working at carnivals and in vaudeville, the head of Psychiatric Medicine at Yale, Dr. Clement Fry approached Burke about brining his client to Yale to be studied. Burke agreed, so long as he came along with him. Fry and Kiphuth were great friends and that's how the two met. Burke was a great compliment to Kiphuth and the two made a great team.
ISHOF: What kind of training did you do while you were at Yale?
AF: We'd start each season with 6 weeks with dry land work using medicine balls, pulleys, running and calisthenics. Kiphuth's dry land program was intense and it got us in great shape before we got in the water. We didn't swim during this period. Our swim workouts were nothing like they do today in terms of distance, but when we swam we were either working on stroke mechanics or we swam all out. Our practices were also always interesting because we did something new and different. It wasn't the same thing every day. We only trained one and a half hours a day, but when we left the pool, we were exhausted.
ISHOF: Weissmuller's 100 yard record of :51 seconds stood for 16 years and although tied four times, was never broken. Was it a psychological barrier? And what was it like to break his record?
AF: Well, first of all, I didn't think of it as a barrier. Bob Kiphuth and I both felt it was just a matter of time before I broke the record and that I was capable of going under :50, which I eventually did. But having met Weissmuller as a youngster and him being so famous, breaking his record was very satisfying.
ISHOF: After you graduated from Yale in 1945, what type of training did you do to prepare for the 1948 Olympic Games? AF: I didn't train. I got married the day after I graduated from Yale and took a job with Carrier Air Conditioning in Syracuse, NY. I didn't get in the water again until February of 1948 when Carrier assigned me to do some research for them at Yale. When I arrived in New Haven I went to see Kiphuth. I had always wanted to go the Olympics but I was in terrible shape and weighed just 130 pounds. Even so, Kiphuth believed he could get me in shape to make the Olympic team and win a gold medal. Bob started me out with dry land exercises to re-build my muscle strength and gain weight. Two months later I finished second to Wally Ris in the AAU National Championships and a few months later finished second again at the Olympic Trials. I never could catch Ris, but was very satisfied with my silver medal at the London Olympic Games.
ISHOF: Did you have a relationship with Weissmuller?
AF: I really didn't. I don't think he was happy that I broke his record. He never wrote me to congratulate me or made an effort to meet me. The only time I spoke to him since meeting him in the Canal Zone when I was a kid was when I was inducted in 1966. When I was introduced, someone let out a loud BOO! It was Weissmuller. Everyone laughed when they saw who it was, but I'm not sure he was joking.
ISHOF: When was the last time you saw Bob Kiphuth?
AF: It was in 1967. I happened to go back to New Haven to watch the Yale vs. Army swim meet and had a nice dinner with Bob after the meet. The next day I learned that he had a heart attack in his sleep and passed away. To this day, I'm grateful I had the opportunity to see him one last time. He was a great man.
To see Alan Ford in action in 1944, click here.