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The damn thing about history: People often stop listening to you
just when you’re old enough to have seen much of anything. In this
country, anyway, yesterday’s news is often just yesterday’s news. Who’s
got the time for it? Nearly 100, Adolph Kiefer has witnessed and made
history. His story, if you haven’t heard it, is worth learning.
Born near the end of World War I to German immigrants who settled in
Chicago’s Albany Park, Kiefer was the fifth of eight children.
Consoling him after a swimming loss, his father Otto predicted swimming
heroics. “Sonny Boy,” he said, “you’re going to be the greatest swimmer
in the world.”
Adolph worked hard to prove his father right. He won a Gold medal in
the 100 meter backstroke at the 1936 Olympics and lost only twice
through some 2,000 international competitions over the next dozen
Now America’s oldest living Olympian, Kiefer, was just 17, the U.S. squad’s youngest male athlete traveling by boat to Berlin 80 years ago. Competing in the “Nazi Games,” Kiefer was befriended by Jesse Owens, perhaps the most iconic of all Olympians. He even shook hands with Adolph Hitler poolside
Before “Sonny Boy” could swim, however, Otto Kiefer spent Sunday
summer afternoons after church tossing his kids off his shoulders into
Lake Michigan. That and the promise of black walnut ice cream on the
way home perhaps proved more influential than Lutheran liturgies.
Kiefer’s father died shortly after predicting his son’s
swimming heroics. When the Great Depression settled in, the family’s
once comfortable existence became a constant struggle.
Holding multiple jobs since his 11th birthday, Kiefer sold popcorn,
operated elevators and worked in chow lines. When he didn’t sneak his
way on, he’d fork over three cents to ride a street car to the South
Side to swim at the Jewish People's Institute. He eventually worked
When the World’s Fair came back to Chicago in 1933, he landed a job
as a junior lifeguard at the Baby Ruth Swimming Pool. There he managed
to successfully pull “Tex” Robertson, a University of Michigan national
champion, away from the girls long enough to get a few tips. On
swimming, that is.
Kiefer broke his first back stroke world record at Theodore
Roosevelt High School when he was only 15. His Illinois high school
state record from 1936 stood until 1960.
During the 1936 Olympics opening
ceremonies, Kiefer said Hitler looked like Charlie Chaplin in his
little spectator’s box. As for the handshake and the pleasantries
relayed through an interpreter, the swimmer could have gone without
meeting the madman.
War in Europe cancelled the Olympics of 1940, and with the whole
at war soon thereafter, the 1944 Games didn’t stand a chance.
Back in Chicago after swimming for a young Coach “Tex” Robertson at the
University of Texas, Kiefer enrolled at the Columbia College of
Expression, even acting in a couple of plays. He said Hollywood studios
were grooming him as a leading man, “not another Tarzan.”
in Hawaii not too long before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on
December 7, 1941. For his part in the war to follow, he joined the Navy
in Virginia as a swim instructor. Imagine his horror to learn just how
many Navy men couldn’t swim. For those poor sailors, “Abandon ship!”
meant almost certain death. With the same ingenuity that helped him
invent a powerful flip turn,
Kiefer authored two Red Cross books and set up training programs that
taught 2 million enlisted men how to swim.
For his money, that instruction outshined any
number of Olympic gold medals.
The chance to actually save American lives from drowning would forever
change Kiefer’s path. Hollywood suddenly seemed like a shallow pursuit,
and more acting classes weren’t feeding two babies. So in 1947, he
started his own swimming company, Kiefer and Associates,
just north of Chicago. He had the Midas touch there, too, claiming 14
patents that introduced the first nylon swimsuits, kickboards, rubber
goggles, floatable racing lanes, and more. He taught his four children
how to swim, of course. Two of his sons became Illinois state
champions. With a big pool in the back yard, his kids taught hundreds
more how to swim.
Kiefer worked with Mayor Richard J. Daley in the 1950s to build
swimming pools all over the city of Chicago. Maybe swimming isn’t
a great equalizer, but he still believes every student should have to
pass a swimming test to graduate high school. Throughout the 1960s and
1970s, Kiefer worked with Sears to test swimming and outdoor products
with buddies like climber Sir Edmund Hillary and baseball great Ted
Williams. His friendship with Owens lasted until the old sprinter died
from lung cancer.
And he kept following the water: exploring shipwrecks all over the
world, slipping into scuba gear, even building some business around
water ski innovations.
He’s never stopped swimming, even now dipping into the indoor pool
his living room from a wheelchair — an hour a day if the doctor lets
him. And he’s still dreaming about water inventions. Not surprisingly,
Kiefer credits his longevity to swimming exercise and the mental
calisthenics of running a successful business.
A Chicago son who swam for his father and worked tirelessly to help provide for two families — first his parents’ and then his own — Adolph Kiefer must have influenced millions by now through his love and respect for the water. And though there might not be many kids named Adolph these days, the Kiefer name and legacy should swim on forever.
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