Adolph Kiefer’s Legacy Turns 100; Still Eligible for Medal of Freedom Award

Support the nomination of Adolph Kiefer for the Presidential Medal of Freedom, a recognition that can still be bestowed posthumously.

The swimming community continues to celebrate the life and legacy of the Olympian, War Hero, Businessman, Inventor, Pioneer, and American Icon, Adolph Kiefer – who would have turned 100 years old today.

A member of the 1936 U.S. Olympic team, Kiefer was a man of many firsts throughout his long and storied life. As a 16-year-old he became the first man to break the one-minute mark while swimming in the 1935 Illinois High School Championships, posting a top showing of 59.8 in the 100 yard backstroke. The following year he lowered that time to a 58.5, which stood as the Illinois State High School record for 24 years, until 1960.

Those records were just the beginning for Kiefer, who went on to break 23 more records in his lifetime.

American Olympian

At age 17, Kiefer was the youngest U.S. Olympian to go to the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, Germany. He shared the stage there with Jesse Owens.

“When we got to Germany, there were swastikas all over the place. Millions of them,” Kiefer once said. “I remember the Germans drove us out where they were making all of their guns. They wanted everyone to know that Germany was big and strong. Anyway, one day Hitler came to the village where we were staying to take some pictures, and I was pretty well known over there because I was breaking records. We got introduced, through an interpreter of course. I’ve always said, I should’ve thrown him in the pool and drowned him. It would have save everyone a lot of trouble.”

Keifer went on to win gold in the 100-meter backstroke.  But racing in the pool was only a small part of Adolph Kiefer…

American War Hero

Kiefer served in the U.S. Navy during World War II, reaching the rank of Lieutenant and pioneering an intensive learn-to-swim program for soldiers that he initiated himself.

“I remember a chief came through and I asked him, ‘Can you swim?’ He said, ‘No.’ I asked another chief, and he said the same thing,” Keifer explained in and interview with Brad Bodkin with Team USA Awards back in 2014. “These guys were in the Navy and they didn’t know how to swim. I did my own study on all the shipwrecks in World War II and it turned out that there were more deaths from drowning than from bullets.  It took a while to put the program together, but we got the best instructors and before anyone could go aboard a ship they had to go through our class and learn about safety and survival in the water.”

His “Victory Backstroke” became the outline of a program that included a heavy focus on water survival, including a requirement of 21 hours of water survival training for sailors. He relocated to Bainbridge, Maine during his time with the Navy where he oversaw the training of more than 130,000 naval swimming instructors. They would go on, in turn, to teach more than two million navy recruits how to swim and survive a sinking ship. He was instrumental in saving thousands of American lives during World War II.

American Businessman

Following his years at Bainbridge, Kiefer established the company Adolph Kiefer & Associates, based out of Chicago. The company is credited for developing the first nylon swimwear in the 1940s and in the 1960s, quickly replacing the wool suits worn by many swimmers.

American Inventor

Kiefer continued to branch out his business, developing the first non-turbulent lane lines, of which he was awarded a patent. The lane lines were inspired by Yale’s legendary coach Bob Kiphuth. He also became the first to distribute Duraflex Diving Boards for his friend Ray Rude, now the leading competitive diving board used world-wide.

Adolph Kiefer Through The Years:

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American Icon

The International Swimming Hall of Fame presented Adolph Kiefer with the Gold Medallion Award, ISHOF’s highest honor, during the 2007 United States Aquatic Sports Convention banquet.

In a surprise, USA Swimming also presented Kiefer with a gold medal from the 1936 Olympic Games, to replace the one that had been stolen shortly after he returned from Berlin 71 years ago. The medal was specially cast from the original mold for the occasion by the International Olympic Museum in Lausanne, Switzerland.

“What a tremendous surprise,” said Kiefer, after receiving the medal from Dr. Sammy Lee, 1948 and 1952 Olympic Gold medalist in Diving, and Rowdy Gaines, 1984 Olympic Gold medalist in swimming. Gaines, President of the USA Swimming Foundation, served as master of ceremonies for the banquet.

This Gold Medallion is conferred annually upon an individual who has been a former competitive swimmer and who has achieved international recognition for accomplishments in the fields of science, government, entertainment, business or education – and whose life has served as an inspiration to youth.

Learn more about the award, its past recipients and to watch Adolph talk about the honor.

Past recipients of the Gold Medallion include: US President, Ronald Reagan, US Senators Barry Goldwater and Paul Tsongas, US Ambassador to the United Nations Andrew Young, Entertainers Art Linkletter and Buddy Ebsen, Sportscaster and Women’s rights pioneer Donna deVarona, businessmen William Simon, Jim Moran and Fred Kirby to name a few. The two most recent recipients have been businessman Jim Press, former CEO of Toyota North America and Hollywood legend, Esther Williams.

At the 2017 United Sports Aquatic Sports convention in Dallas, the Kiefer was honored with the R. Max Ritter award.

Check out the USAS tribute video to Kiefer below.

American Medal of Freedom Nominee

Join with ISHOF and Swimming World Magazine to support the nomination of Adolph Kiefer for the Presidential Medal of Freedom, a recognition that can still be bestowed posthumously and one we believe is long overdue as a role model for generations who aspire to live a meaningful life.

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.

Long Time former Editor and Chief for Swimming World Magazine, Phillip Whitten, articulated the motivation and reasons behind awarding the Medal of Freedom to Adolph Kiefer in an editorial first published in December of 2013.

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 the only American male swimmer to win Olympic gold at the 1936 Games in Germany.
* 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.

Watch this Morning Swim Show With Kiefer From 2014

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.

The Adolph Kiefer Fund

At Adolph’s request, the Kiefer family with the YMCA of the USA (YUSA) have established the Adolph Kiefer Memorial Fund to continue to foster his devotion and passion for swimming.  Through the generosity of Adolph and the Kiefer family, starting in 2018, the centennial of Adolph Kiefer’s birth, the YUSA and the Adolph Kiefer Memorial Fund will present Outstanding Athlete Awards to one male and one female swimmer at the YMCA Short Course Nationals. These awards recognize two swimmers each year for their excellence in academic achievement and commitment to healthy living and social responsibility through YMCA competitive swimming

Taylor Brien, Phil Whitten, Fred Salzmann, and the International Swimming Hall of Fame contributed to this report.

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Trudy York Miller
5 years ago


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