Adolph Kiefer: One of the Greatest Backstrokers of All Time Passes Away

Adolph Kiefer center in the pool with naval personnel
Adolph Kiefer center in the pool with naval personnel

At the age of 15, Adolph Kiefer set his first world record.

At the age of 16, he was the first person in the world to swim the 100-yard backstroke in less than a minute. As this article states, Kiefer held every backstroke record there was for 15 years.

And in 1936, at the age of 18, he won the gold medal in the men’s 100-meter backstroke, setting Olympic records in the heats and the finals. He had a streak of over 200 consecutive victories in the back stroke, and in his career, lost only twice.

At the age of 98, on May 5, 2017, Kiefer passed away in his home state of Illinois.

The great swimming coach from Hawaii, Soichi Sakamoto, was inspired by Kiefer, and got tremendous insight in technique by watching film of the Chicago native. Here is how Julie Checkoway, in her wonderful book, The Three-Year Swim Club, describes Kiefer through the eyes of Sakamoto:

When he filmed backstroker Adolph Kiefer, he found in him the same relaxation – in Kiefer’s legs, his rolling arms, his outstretched but loosened palms and fingers, a catch that seemed effortless, a recovery that took no time at all. For too long Sakamoto had believed that Kiefer had merely been a talented natural whom Stan Brauninger had discovered in a concrete culvert in Chicago; Kiefer was talented, all right, but he hadn’t become the world record holder in the backstroke without a technique that was, to Sakamoto, nothing less than genius.

After the 1936 Berlin Olympics, there was anticipation of so much more Olympic glory for Kiefer – but like others of his generation, the war years intervened. That did not, however, stop Kiefer from making an even bigger impact. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Kiefer joined the Navy. As Checkoway, revealed, Kiefer was shocked to hear that 50% of the soldiers who perished at Pearl Harbor did so by drowning. And yet, when soldiers returned to his port in Norfolk Virginia, he was surprised to hear that learning how to swim was still not a priority.

Adolph Kiefer

At his insistence, Kiefer was sent to Washington DC to make a case for institutionalized swimming instruction. Kiefer made a strong case. “What good [is] a 5-man gun crew,” Kiefer asked the Navy brass, “if one of those 5 couldn’t swim and fell in? With one man drowned, what good [is] a 5-man weapon?” Kiefer got the funding and set up a training center for naval swimming instructors. As Checkoway explained, Kiefer was so well known and so well liked, he had little trouble rounding up some 1,200 swimmers to teach survival swimming, who would in turn train every naval sailor how to swim.

As the obituary in The New York Times explained, Kiefer met the Fascist leader, Adolph Hitler, after his gold medal victory.

One day, while Kiefer was training, Hitler came by with an entourage of Nazi officials, including the powerful Hermann Göring. Hitler had learned of Kiefer’s German heritage and wanted to meet him.

“I remember him being a small man with a small hand,” Kiefer told the Times columnist Ira Berkow in 2000, “and his handshake wasn’t a firm one. Then he spoke to the interpreter, and I was told he said something like, ‘This young man is the perfect example of the true Aryan.’”

Kiefer added: “At the time, I was honored to meet this important head of state. But if I knew then what I know now about Hitler, I should have thrown him into the pool and drowned him. I even can’t stand the name Adolph now. But I’m stuck with it.”