Kiphuth’s Ride to the Medal of Freedom

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

NEW HAVEN, Connecticut, June 4. IN 1963, President Lyndon B. Johnson resumed Harry Truman's idea from 1945 of the Medal of Freedom and since that time there have been only 22 sportsmen to win the award. Winners include Arthur Ashe, Bill Jean King, Muhammad Ali, Bill Russell and Stan Musial. There is only one recipient who has spent their life involved in the sport of swimming as an athlete, coach or official. His name is Robert John Herman Kiphuth.

The President's Medal Of Freedom is considered the highest civilian award in the United States. It is given to those who have provided a particularly “meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, world peace, cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.”

These people have been ambassadors of ideas and behavior that influenced broad masses of people. So what was it that made Mr. Kiphuth so special?

Was it his coaching five Olympic Teams for the USA? Winning 14 AAU National Team titles? The four NCAA Team Championships? Perhaps his dual meet record as Yale Head Coach of 520-12? He authored or co-authored at least five books and that's not easy to do while you're coaching full-time. Neither are 33 trips overseas as a coach and an ambassador for the sport of swimming around the world. Not impressed? Many coaches travel today with U.S. national teams? Most of Kiphuth's trips were by ocean liner since air travel was not common in his day.

I've heard great coaches say, “I don't want to be a politician, I just want to be a swimming coach.”

People that make that decision leave the sport's management and future to others. Not Mr. Kiphuth. He was a founder of the Council for National Cooperation in Aquatics, a charter Vice President of the International Swimming Hall of Fame, a director of the Boys Clubs of America, the National Art Museum of Sports, the President's Fitness Council, National Swim Chairman of the AAU and many other executive-administrative functions other than coaching. During his lifetime from 1890 to 1967 he saw enormous changes in the sport of swimming and presided over many of them. One was his influence on publicizing the sport with his 'creation' of Swimming World Magazine.

When Kiphuth moved from this earth in 1967, long time New Haven Register writer Bill Ahern wrote, “He was the authority that put the sport on its feet and took it from the drabness of the underwater plunge to the excitement of the freestyle and butterfly strokes. It was no miracle nor was the transformation born overnight. It was his revolutionary thinking, political maneuvering, iron will and persuasion that has brought the sport to the peak it enjoys today.”

That certainly sounds like a politician and a coach to me.

In President Lyndon Johnson's first class of awards of the Presidential Medal Of Freedom were John Kennedy (posthumously) and Robert Kiphuth. The next sportsman inducted was in 1977 when Jesse Owens joined Joe DiMaggio to be so honored.

If he wasn't riding his bike, Mr. Kiphuth loved to drive. He was known for his speedy traversing of the highways, always anxious to get to his new experience or make the trip itself an adventure that a Formula One driver might enjoy. Therefore one has to think he seated himself in his car in New Haven, Ct., and peeled off toward Washington, D.C. for the ceremony. This column is devoted to what he might have thought about on that drive…all his experiences around the world in swimming…and what the future might bring…

On a regular basis, we will use his past swimmers, and historical documents to present a look into “Kiphuth's Ride To The Medal Of Freedom.”

I can see Mr. Kiphuth making a forward adjustment in the driver's seat of his car. He was so short that if anyone had driven it other than him this must have been necessary. Then pulling out of the parking lot of the Payne Whitney Gym at Yale, turning right on Tower Parkway and pressing the gas pedal down. His car might have etched its way out of the shadows of what Cecil Colwin called his “Cathedral of Sweat” — the incredible home to the Yale Swimming program with a 50-meter pool on the third floor and a 2187 seat exhibition pool on the first.

Off to the White House drove Mr. Kiphuth and his mind swirled with all that he had seen and done since he became a swimming coach at Yale in 1917… To be continued in the next installment.

Chuck Warner is Historian 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 year.