On Presidents’ Day, a Look at the Role of Swimming in Presidential History


On Presidents’ Day, a Look at the Role of Swimming in Presidential History

As the United States celebrates Presidents’ Day, it is a fitting time to dive into the significance swimming has held in presidential history. Indeed, we have never seen an Olympic caliber athlete in the White House, but that did not stop a handful of presidents from utilizing their years as Commander in Chief to get some laps in the pool. Notably, swimming has served our country’s highest leader in many capacities. Presidents have used swimming for recreation, swam collegiately, or even as a tool for healing.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt

Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR), the 32nd President of the United States, opened a pool in the White House on June 2, 1933, after a successful campaign to raise money for a pool. FDR used it as a therapeutic tool since his poliomyelitis diagnosis in 1921. The pool, built between the White House and the West Wing, had arched ceilings and semi-circular windows. While the pool is not in use anymore after Richard Nixon covered it up, it serves as the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room. Here, the Press Secretary briefs news media journalists and similarly where the President sometimes addresses the press and the nation.

President John F. Kennedy

PC16 c. 1936-1937 Harvard swim team photo, John F. Kennedy is third from left in back row, c. 1936-1937. Photographer unknown in the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.

Photo Courtesy: JFK Library (JFK is third from left in back row)

While John F. Kennedy (JFK) served as the 35th president of the United States, he was also a member of the Harvard College swim team. He was a talented backstroker and helped Harvard defeat Yale for the first time. Soon after finishing his schooling, JFK served in WWII, where his swimming talents turned him into a war hero. In 1943, the Motor Torpedo PT-109 was run down by a Japanese destroyer, leaving Kennedy and 11 other men stranded. JFK led the men in more than a three-mile swim to an island where they lived off coconuts and water for almost a week. His heroic act is commonly celebrated and notoriously mentioned in many books, songs, and other media sources. In 1961, JFK’s father had the pool room painted with a mural depicting the U.S. Virgin Islands, painted by Bernard Lamotte. 

President Gerald Ford

The 38th president of the United States, Gerald Ford considered renovating the existing pool after President Nixon closed it off. But, Ford didn’t want to displace the press, so instead he installed a pool and cabana on the outside of the White House. The pool included showers, a changing area, and an underground passageway, connecting the Cabana to the West Wing ground floor. Ford loved swimming so much that he would often address the press from the pool.

President Ronald Reagan

Ronald Reagan, America’s 40th President, was an avid swimmer in his childhood and early adult life. Regan was a lifeguard in his teen years and saved 77 lives over seven years. After graduating from high school, Reagan attended Eureka College in Illinois, competing for both the varsity swimming and football teams. Reagan was a very successful competitor, going undefeated his freshman season and eventually becoming a coach for the team. During his presidency, Reagan used the White House pool and received the Gold Medallion Award from the International Swimming Hall of Fame in 1988.

Although our most recent presidents haven’t shown high interest in swimming, it’s evident through presidential history that swimming’s use extends further than just for sport. Whether it be for relaxation or therapeutic needs, the significance of swimming has been felt across presidential administrations for decades. Swimming may not draw as much attention as other professional sports, but it’s humbling to know how symbolic and important swimming is for our leaders. So, take it from our nation’s highest leaders and discover your niche in swimming. As with any other election, remember to exercise your right to vote, and you might elect a swimmer into office!

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Karen Seeber
Karen Seeber
3 years ago

Great article ! Very interesting information.

3 years ago

Thanks for sharing all this was new to me.
I did like swimmingpool myself from an early age.
Got allergier from chlorine so I had rått stop.

3 years ago

Joe Biden was the only white lifeguard at a city pool in 1962.

Lorraine Mullins
Lorraine Mullins
1 month ago

Joe Biden shows his true American spirit in everything he does.

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