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The Olympic swimming icon who might have been


In the whole history of the Olympics, only four American swimmers have achieved lasting celebrity. Johnny Weissmuller and Buster Crabbe went on to Hollywood as Tarzan; Eleanor Holm, gorgeous and notorious, starred in the World's Fair Aquacade; and Mark Spitz won all those golds at Munich in 1972. Now, maybe Michael Phelps will become number five. We'll see. But, except for a little accident of history, Sunny Boy Kiefer would definitely have been included in that exalted group.

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 Pablo Casals was to the cello.

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. Aquatics International magazine has called Kiefer "a combination of Thomas Edison, Abraham Lincoln and George Washington."

But then, it's really Edison, Lincoln, Washington and Charlie Chaplin. You see, for several years Kiefer also starred in a comedy act, the highlight of which was his race against a seal named Sharkey. The seal made $900 a week, Kiefer $600. But that was big money back then. Kiefer says it allowed him to develop new products for his company, pay for a new driveway for his house and father another daughter.

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, Jesse Owens.

"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.

Even now, Adolph Kiefer is still very much a work in progress.