Swimming World Presents – How The General Slocum Steamship Disaster Impacted Swimming History

Swimming World April 2021 - How The General Slocum Steamship Disaster Impacted Swimming History - Johnny Weissmuller and Charles Robert Drew
(From left) Johnny Weissmuller at the Molitor Pool, Paris; and Charles R. Drew at the Francis Pool, Washington, D.C. (circa 1931).[PHOTO BY ISHOF/NATIONAL INSTITUTE OF HEALTH]

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How The General Slocum Steamship Disaster Impacted Swimming History

By Bruce Wigo

The General Slocum steamship disaster in 1904, the tragedy that changed swimming history, had an impact on two of the greatest swimming heroes of all time, Johnny Weissmuller and Charles Robert Drew.

All historians relish finding coincidences of seemingly unconnected events that explain historical outcomes. One of these coincidences occurred when two of swimming’s greatest heroes were born on consecutive days in June of 1904.

JOHNNY WEISSMULLER
The first hero of this story is well known: Johann “Johnny” Peter Weissmuller. He was born on June 2, 1904, to German-speaking parents living in Romania. It was less than two weeks before the infamous General Slocum steamship disaster that claimed the lives of more than 1,000 people—mostly women and children—from a German-American church group in New York City’s East River. The Slocum disaster made international news, especially in German-speaking regions of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

When the Weissmullers immigrated to America in 1907, his parents made a point to teach him swimming at Fullerton Beach on Lake Michigan. At the age of 11, he joined the Northside YMCA, where he showed promise not only as a swimmer, but in running and high jumping.

But his future as an athlete appeared to end when his alcoholic father left the family. Forced to leave school after the eighth grade to support his little brother and mom, he went to work, delivering packages for a church supply company and hawking produce from a cart.

“You know, your guts get so mad when you try to fight poverty,” Weissmuller recalled. “I told myself, ‘I’m going to get out of this neighborhood, if only because he’s got a quarter and I haven’t.’”

But he still found time to swim, and it was while working as a bellhop and elevator operator at the Plaza Hotel in 1920 that Johnny’s reputation as a young swimmer earned him a tryout with Bill Bachrach, the legendary coach of the Illinois Athletic Club. Bachrach took Johnny under his wing and became a surrogate father and trainer…and the rest, as they say, is history.

 

CHARLES ROBERT DREW
Our second swimming hero was born on June 3, 1904, the day after Weissmuller was born. You probably never heard of Charles Robert Drew, but that’s why we write history.

Drew was born to African-American parents, living in Washington D.C., where he grew up in the largely middle-class and interracial neighborhood of Foggy Bottom. Like Weissmuller, the Slocum tragedy had a direct impact on Drew’s childhood, since the event triggered a nationwide interest in the importance of learning to swim and also resulted in a swimming pool-building craze.

It was in one of these pools, the segregated Howard Playground pool, where Charles Drew first learned to swim and show promise as a champion swimmer—before attending Paul Laurence Dunbar High School. Best known today for its legendary basketball teams, Dunbar was a “colored” school named after one of the first African Americans to gain international acclaim as a poet and novelist. When the school first opened in 1916, it was considered one of the nation’s finest secondary schools—white or black—and it has produced over the years an incredible list of distinguished alumni.

It was also one of the few public high schools at the time with its own indoor pool. Drew not only excelled in the classroom, but won letters in four sports (swimming, football, basketball and track). He was voted “best athlete,” “most popular student” and “the student who has done the most for the school,” and he earned a scholarship to attend Amherst College in Massachusetts.


To read more about swimming greats Johnny Weissmuller and Charles Robert Drew,
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Swimming World April 2021 - Lilly King - Ever The Competitor - COVER

[PHOTO CREDIT: MINE KASAPOGLU/ISL]

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Swimming World April 2021 Issue

FEATURES

012 A PANDEMIC PERSPECTIVE FROM MASTERS SWIMMING
by Dan D’Addona
Masters swimmers maintain a connection to the sport they love as well as to their team and community. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, that connection has been missing the past year, but they are ready to face the challenges that lie ahead.

017 DEATH, TAXES…AND INDIAN RIVER!
by Andy Ross
Indian River State College will be shooting for its 47th straight men’s and 39th consecutive women’s NJCAA team titles.

018 TAKEOFF TO TOKYO: SPRINT TSAR
by John Lohn
As Swimming World continues its “Takeoff to Tokyo” series, the opportunity to examine the career of Russia’s Alexander Popov—accomplishments and approach—is the chance to pay tribute to a man who might be the greatest sprinter the sport has ever seen.

021 COUNT ON CHINA
by Dan D’Addona
Based on the results of the last eight Olympics—and the most recent World Championships held two years ago—China would be a good bet to once again dominate the diving competition, July 23-Aug. 8, at the 2021 Games in Tokyo.

022 EVER THE COMPETITOR
by David Rieder
Five years after her public introduction to the world at the Rio Olympics, little has changed about Lilly King. She will still speak her mind, tell you how she really feels, and she’s still a winner, a dominant force in sprint breaststroke.

025 THE GREATEST OF THEIR GENERATION
by Bruce Wigo
The General Slocum steamship disaster in 1904, the tragedy that changed swimming history, had an impact on two of the greatest swimming heroes of all time, Johnny Weissmuller and Charles Robert Drew.

028 NUTRITION: FUELING FOR COMPETITION—THE “CHERRY ON TOP!”
by Dawn Weatherwax
Athletes spend hours upon hours training. It is now time to put the sports nutrition piece all together when it matters most. A big part of the plan is to know what, when and how much to eat and drink before, during and after the event.

COACHING

014 FAST AND FURIOUS
by Michael J. Stott
College coaches Braden Holloway (NC State), Todd DeSorbo (Virginia), Matt Kredich (Tennessee) and Jessen Book (Kenyon) share their ideas on how they help their swimmers maximize turn speed.

038 SWIMMING TECHNIQUE CONCEPTS: APPLYING MECHANICAL PRINCIPLES TO IMPROVE SWIMMING TECHNIQUE
by Rod Havriluk
Many swimmers attempt to swim faster by modeling the technique of the fastest swimmers. Using champions as models is an archaic approach of painstakingly slow, trial-and-error that risks adopting technique limitations. A far superior approach is to apply mechanical principles that eliminate uncertainty and accelerate the skill-learning process.

043 Q&A WITH COACH MEGAN OESTING
by Michael J. Stott

044 HOW THEY TRAIN DIGGORY DILLINGHAM
by Michael J. Stott

TRAINING

037 DRYSIDE TRAINING: PUSHING POWER
by J.R. Rosania

JUNIOR SWIMMER

040 GOLDMINDS: LEARN HOW TO BE A RACER
by Wayne Goldsmith
It’s important to learn how to swim your event in such a way that you can perform to your potential in every possible racing situation, including different strategies for heats, semifinals and finals.

047 UP & COMERS: DANIEL DIEHL
by Shoshanna Rutemiller

COLUMNS & SPECIAL SECTIONS

008 A VOICE FOR THE SPORT

011 DID YOU KNOW: ABOUT THE STORY OF THE AUMAKUA?

030 2021 SWIM CAMP DIRECTORY

046 DADS ON DECK: BRENT BILQUIST

048 GUTTERTALK

049 PARTING SHOT

Swimming World is now partnered with the International Swimming Hall of Fame. To find out more, visit us at ishof.org

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