Adolph Kiefer Reminisces About Jesse Owens Following Record $1.4 Million Auction of Owens’ Gold Medal

ZION, Illinois, December 10. THIS week, one of Jesse Owens’ 1936 Olympic gold medals sold at auction for $1.4 million, the highest price ever for an Olympic item.

With Adolph Kiefer, one of the chief ambassadors of swimming then and now, having been a long-standing friend of Owens and a teammate at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, Swimming World reached out to talk to Kiefer to get his thoughts on the matter. It turned into a bit more of a conversation on Kiefer’s love and respect for Owens as well as their friendship.

“As long as the medal stays involved in sports, it helps,” Kiefer told Swimming World. “I have no objection to it being sold. The Owens family is still unified, and they have a great deal of activity in his name. We have a school named after him in Chicago. We are all supportive of anything doing with Jessie Owens. He was a great leader.”

And, if media reports are correct, the medal will certainly still remain active as Pittsburgh Penguins co-owner Ron Burckle has said that he plans on including it as part of an educational tour of his historical piece collection.

Taking the chance to talk about Owens, Kiefer remembers his relationship fondly.

“Swimming and track and field were at different times at the [Olympics],” Kiefer told Swimming World. “So, Jessie used to watch me swim, and I’d go watch him do his workouts and carry his bag. Later, when he came to Chicago, we’d play golf together. Then, we worked together to start the Midwest chapter of the U.S. Olympians group. We were very close friends.”

The interesting part of the Owens auction is no one knows exactly which medal it is since there are no markings on it. Owens lost his originals, and the four replacement medals that were made now reside at his alma mater Ohio State.

Kiefer also lost his one gold medal from the 1936 Olympics, but waited for quite some time before having it replaced.

“I lost my medal at some point, and someone offered to pay to have it replaced,” Kiefer told Swimming World. “At the time, I said no because it’s not the medal that I won. I did finally make arrangements with FINA to get the new medal made, and it cost me about $542 if I remember correctly. I gave that medal to the International Swimming Hall of Fame to use to promote swimming. They take the medal to various places, and I do that as a courtesy to the sport.”

Nowadays, Kiefer is still a health activist. He served under three presidents on the President’s Council for Fitness, Sports & Nutrition, and still believes that the council needs to have more of a focus in our current culture with obesity on a steady rise in the U.S.

“Every grammar school kid in the United States needs to be certified in health and fitness,” Kiefer told Swimming World.

In December’s landmark issue of Swimming World Magazine, we called for the swimming community to support Kiefer’s nomination for the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Here’s Phil Whitten’s article regarding the call for action.

A Voice for the Sport
Medal of Freedom for Adolph Kiefer

Not long ago, a group of swimmers, former swimmers and coaches got together to talk about our favorite sport.

“So who do you think was the most influential swimmer of all time?,” someone challenged. “That’s easy,” replied one of the younger swimmers, “It’s got to be Michael Phelps.”

“Not so fast, dude,” came a rejoinder. “Michael is almost certainly the greatest swimmer in history, but the question is: who was the most influential? I think you can make a strong case for Mark Spitz.”

Other names were offered: Johnny Weissmuller, Duke Kahanamoku, Gertrude Ederle, even Benjamin Franklin.

We didn’t resolve the question, of course, but the conversation got me thinking: who was the most influential swimmer ever? Was it one of the superstars whose name figured prominently in our discussion?

Then it hit me. It could only be one person: Adolph Kiefer.

That’s when I decided to write an article about this incredible man. So I dashed off a proposal and sent it to Brent Rutemiller, the publisher of Swimming World.

“Great idea, Phil,” he told me, “but let’s take it one step further. Let’s nominate Adolph for the Presidential Medal of Freedom.”

* * *

The Presidential Medal of Freedom is the USA’s highest civilian award. Created by President Harry S. Truman, it rewarded war-related acts or services during World War II. In 1963, President John F. Kennedy expanded its scope to honor individuals who have made extraordinary contributions to the security of the United States, world peace, cultural or other significant endeavors.

Unquestionably, Kiefer is a deserving candidate for the award. His greatest accomplishment–and the one of which he is most proud–was having created a survival curriculum for downed U.S. airmen during WWII that saved at least 4,000 lives.

This was his greatest service to the United States, and for this alone, Kiefer should be awarded the medal.

* He is the most successful swimmer in history, losing only once in more than 2,000 races.
* He was one of two American male swimmers to win Olympic gold at the 1936 Games in Germany (Jack Medica, 400 free).
* He set world records at every distance in the backstroke, some of which lasted for two decades.
* He also coached a U.S. Navy team to a national title in 1948, placing four of his five swimmers on the U.S. Olympic team.

His accomplishments as an inventor are equally impressive. Kiefer is the proud owner of 14 U.S. patents, including the first kickboard, non-turbulent racing lane lines and the nylon swimsuit (replacing woolen suits).

At 95, Kiefer still swims an hour a day and attributes his longevity to the swimming and a “pretty good diet” prepared by his wife, Joyce, of 72 years. He no longer competes in swimming, but he does play bridge three times a week, where he gives free reign to his competitive instinct. “I may not place first every time, but I always win something,” he says. It also provides a captive audience for the activity he enjoys the most, according to his son, Jack: talking.

The oldest living Olympic gold medalist in any sport, Kiefer was named the “father of American swimming” two years ago by USA Swimming and the U.S. Olympic Committee. Nowadays, he may be confined to a wheelchair by neuropathy, but his mind is nearly as sharp as it was 60 or 70 years ago.

If you would like to support our nomination of Adolph Kiefer for the Presidential Medal of Freedom, contact: Executive Office of the President, The White House, Attn: Executive Clerk’s Office, Washington, DC 20502. Phone: 202-456-2226; Fax: 202-456-2569.

SwimmingWorld.TV Interview With Adolph Kiefer