Kiphuth’s Ride to the Medal of Freedom: Part III; Becoming The Coach at Yale

As seen through the eyes of Chuck Warner, Swimming World Contributor

Kiphuth's Ride to the Medal of Freedom: Part I
Kiphuth's Ride to the Medal of Freedom: Part II

NEW HAVEN, Connecticut, June 22. IF there is any single person to look to that helped the United States and the world advance the sport of Swimming in the first half of the 20th century it would be Coach Robert John Herman Kiphuth. As we begin the selection of another powerful U.S. Olympic Swimming Team we might enjoy knowing more about how we progressed to this point and why Mr. Kiphuth is the sport's only winner of the Presidential Medal of Freedom in American history.

On the beginning of his drive to Washington DC that early December day Mr. Kiphuth steered a left hand turn down Broadway (New Haven, Ct) and drove through the middle of the Yale campus. He might have felt some of his common traits to the recently slain President Kennedy.

While President Kennedy wanted to race the world to the moon, Coach Kiphuth wanted to race the world to Olympic medals and his Yale teams to NCAA Championships. President Kennedy innovated national service with programs like the Peace Corps. Bob Kiphuth changed swimming training — for a period of time — by breaking free from long held opinions that land strength training made swimmers too bulky for optimum performance. President Kennedy seemed to see unlimited possibilities in the world. Vision and unlimited possibilities defined Coach Kiphuth.

From 1908 through 1948 the Men's Olympic Events consisted of the 100, 400 and 1500 freestyles, the 100 backstroke, 200 breaststroke and the 4 x 200 free relay. The women's events began that period in 1908 with only the 100 freestyle and the 4 x 100 free relay. Gradually more events were added to bring the women's program into a similar event format as the men, but it took 40 years.

The U.S. had some success in the early modern Olympics. In 1920, 1924, and 1928 the Americans outperformed the world in the total medal count. However, by 1932 the Japanese moved into a dominant overall position despite a tremendous US Women's Team. In the 1936 Games Japan was the best again. World War II suspended the Olympics in the 1940 and 1944. When swimming's grandest stage reappeared in 1948 it was the Americans that dominated the world including a sweep of every Olympic gold medal in the men's events, something that had never been done before and has never been done since. The U.S. coach? Bob Kiphuth.

The Coach stood only 5'5″ high and grew up in upper state New York near Buffalo in a town called Tonawanda. As odd a location that the Buffalo, New York area might be one that would produce a swim coach, it was a veritable hamlet for swim coaches in the early 1900s. There were others from the area by the names of Matt Mann, Uhro Saari, Harry Hainsworth and later George Breen that became renowned coaches.

Kiphuth had come to Yale in his early 20s to be an exercise and fitness instructor. He had never been on a swim team himself, but became interested in swimming while watching swimmers in his supervision of the pool while he worked at Yale's Carnegie Gym. He wondered how he might help them swim faster.

Matt Mann was involved with the Yale program at the time. In 1917 he accepted the head coaching position at the Duluth Athletic Club in Michigan, before taking over at the University of Michigan in 1926 where he went on to win eight NCAA team titles in a row, 12 in 15 years and a record 13 overall. Coach Mann emigrated from England and lived and worked near Kiphuth in Buffalo, N.Y.

Recently retired Coach Skip Kenney of Stanford is known for never knowing times. Coach Mann always knew times but never knew a name. His swimmers were called “son” and “honey” throughout his career. Nevertheless his boundless energy and enthusiasm for swimming left his athletic director at Michigan saying when he died, “Mann was the greatest coach (of any sport) who ever lived.”

When Coach Mann left Yale for the Michigan job in 1917 someone at Yale needed to coach the Bulldogs. Kiphuth left his post in the old Carnegie Gym to go down to the pool and work with the team.

Chuck Warner is contributor for Swimming World Magazine and author of Four Champions: One Gold Medal. Chuck is currently working on his next book titled And Then They Won Gold, which will be published later this month.

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