The Olympic swimming icon who might have been
In the whole history of the Olympics, only four American swimmers have achieved lasting celebrity.
You've probably never heard of Kiefer. But the historical hiccup that interrupted his career was something called World War II. Starting in 1935 when he was just 17, Kiefer set backstroke records just about every time he jumped into the pool, climaxing his work by taking the only men's backstroke gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. But more important, Keifer didn't reach his peak until almost a decade later. Had there been the Tokyo Olympics of 1940 and the London Games of '44, Sunny Boy would've have surely won them in a breeze. He'd be to the backstroke what
But it was wartime, and Kiefer became a naval officer who helped write the guidelines that taught thousands of American sailors to swim. After the war, he started his own swimwear company. Among other things he invented was the nylon suit, which finally helped someone else break his Olympic record after 16 years. He also improved championship pools so that swimmers could race faster. Starting in the 1960s, Kiefer pioneered a program that saw the construction of public pools across his hometown of Chicago so that inner-city kids could cool off and learn to swim.
But then, it's really Edison, Lincoln, Washington and
He also reveals that he let Sharkey the Seal win because Kiefer was, aquatically, the top banana.
Kiefer, you see, is still very much alive. He's 90 years old, married 67 to Joyce. His square name is Adolph, which, unfortunately, has not been an especially popular moniker for some time, But precisely because of his name and his German heritage, an Adolf made a special effort to meet him in Berlin in 1936. Yes, Hitler came by the pool and shook his hand, which, of course, he would not do for Kiefer's good friend,
"If I knew then what I know now," Kiefer says, "I woulda pushed him into the pool."
Seventy-two years on, for this Olympics, the erstwhile Sunny Boy and his Joyce watch the swimming from Beijing every night. In the morning, he swims 45 minutes and then goes to his office at Kiefer & Associates. "I'm still a working man," he says.