George Breen, a Four-Time Olympic Medalist, Dies After Battle With Pancreatic Cancer


George Breen, a four-time Olympic medalist between the 1956 Games in Melbourne and the 1960 Games in Rome, died on Nov. 9 after battling pancreatic cancer. He was 84. Breen is considered one of the finest distance freestylers in the history of United States Swimming and was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame in 1975.

Born on July 19, 1935, Breen didn’t follow a typical path into the sport, as he did not begin his competitive career until his freshman year at Cortland State University. At Cortland State, Breen’s natural ability in the pool was guided by legendary coach Doc Counsilman, who molded Breen into one of his first standout athletes.

A 22-time national champion who established six world records during his career, Breen enjoyed his greatest success in the 1500 freestyle, an event in which he set the world record on two occasions. At the 1956 Olympics, Breen set a world record of 17:52.9 in the preliminaries of the 1500 freestyle, but he could not match that time in the final and settled for the bronze medal in a race won by Australian legend Murray Rose. That Olympiad also featured Breen winning a bronze medal in the 400 freestyle and a silver medal as a member of the United States’ 800 freestyle relay.

George Breen

George Breen won four Olympic medals in two Games appearances.

Four years later, Breen again qualified to represent the United States in Olympic action, winning another bronze medal in the 1500 free after training under Counsilman at Indiana. At the 1960 Games, Breen’s veteran status led to him being named captain of Team USA. A year earlier, at the Pan American Games, Breen was the gold medalist in the 400 freestyle and the silver medalist in the 1500 freestyle.

Breen’s excellence in the sport extended beyond his athletic prowess as Breen also etched himself as an elite coach. Breen was the coach of the University of Pennsylvania from 1966-1982 and also served as a club coach for the Vesper Swim Club, the Gloucester County Institute of Technology and the Jersey Wahoos.

Among his other achievements include being the Chair of the USA Swimming Olympic International Operations Committee, a longtime Board of Directors member for Middle Atlantic Swimming and a member of the USA Swimming Board of Directors as Coach Vice President of USA Swimming. Breen was also inducted into the American Swimming Coaches Association Hall of Fame and the Cortland State Hall of Fame.

“I was a lucky person and met a lot of wonderful people,” Breen once said of his time in the sport. “Besides Doc, Indianapolis Athletic Club coach Gene Lee, Ray Essick and Frank Keefe also played an important role in my development. I met George Haines and learned there are a lot of coaches who were pretty smart guys. Then there were the swimmers. I say, ‘I don’t go to work. I go to swimming.’ I was taught to enjoy it. I think of swimming as a business in which you can run into clients for the rest of your life. Swimming offers so many positives, so you don’t have to dwell on the negatives.”

Bruce Wigo, at the International Swimming Hall of Fame, caught up with George Breen six years ago. Here are some tremendous memories and insight:



  1. avatar
    Anne Essick

    George was a part of our family.
    Ray and George are together again. Have fun guys. We miss you. Love forever

  2. avatar
    Andrew Lehner

    We love you George. You were a great inspiration in my life and I always will cherish the good times we shared and the fantastic stories you told. RIP George
    Andy Lehner

  3. avatar
    Pete nagle

    One of the finest men I’ve ever known , so proud to have been one of his captains at penn , Rest In Peace. With love Pete Nagle

  4. avatar
    Gary Kester

    I loved George. He helped me out in a number of ways in my four years at Penn, both in swimming and life in general. Great man! he will be missed.

  5. avatar
    Jim Villa

    Athlete, Coach , Colleague and Friend. A “10” in every category. You will missed by all the many lives you touched.
    Thanks for everything

  6. avatar
    Rick Benner

    George was and is both a great motivator and inspiration. I swam with him at both Vesper and at Penn… he was a mentor, a coach and a second father… He knew not only what to say but how to say it to make his point and challenge you to be your best… Knowing him made me a better man, a better coach…. and most importantly a better father

    Rick Benner

  7. avatar
    Henry OReilly

    George was a great motivator and coach
    I have so many great memories of early Vesper and then Penn
    He will be missed by many of the swimmers he came in contact with and coached .
    I will always remember George whether at practice or at meets sitting on the sidelines with that half smile … and swimming as hard as I could to turn that into a full grin .
    all my prayers to his family


  8. avatar
    Hannah Roche

    Coach George was always the person that helped remind you why you love to swim. Swimming for him at Wahoos, I’ll never forget the many stories he would tell us about how swimming is one of those sports that’s meant to be enjoyed. And while our teams might be made up of individuals, you could always count on coach George to bring everyone together.

    You’ll be dearly missed, Coach George! Fly high and swim endlessly.


  9. avatar
    Ken Reardon

    George was a huge part of my Penn experience. I’ll always remember his stories, his ability to motivate me, and the great team dynamic he created. My thanks to George for all that and more.
    Ken Reardon

  10. avatar
    chris Belair

    I got to coach for George for over 10 years at Team Delaware. He taught me so much about more than just coaching, he taught about life. I’m a better person because I knew him

  11. avatar
    William Smith

    George, all four of those Smith girls you coached at Team Delaware and GCIT all those years are better people because of you. Rest In Peace, we will miss you!