The Effortless and Legendary Life of Johnny Weissmuller Part 1: From Hotel Bellhop to Rising Star

 

Sgt Pepper cover

 

If you were on the eclectic cover of the Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, you were likely a giant in your field. Carl Jung, Lenny Bruce, George Bernard Shah, Sonny Liston, Marilyn Monroe were among the 50+ people on that epic montage with the Beatles.

Just over the shoulders of Ringo Starr and Paul McCartney was the downcast visage of Johnny Weissmuller, one of the most well-known people of the 20th century.

Not only did Weissmuller dominate the sprint races in the Olympics in the 1920s, he was the most enduring face of Tarzan on the silver screen, starring in 12 films featuring the beloved Edgar Rice Burrough’s creation. But Weissmuller as Tarzan would never have existed if not for Weissmuller as ultimate swimming machine. When Weissmuller arrived in Paris in June 1924 for the Olympics, the world had incredibly high expectations as Weissmuller held most of the world’s swimming records from 50 to 500 yards.

It was all so easy that at the 1923 AAU National Indoor Championships in Chicago, Weissmuller won the freestyle in the 50, 100, 220 and 500-yard competitions, as well as the 880-yard freestyle relay. But according to David Fury, author of Weissmuller’s biography entitled Twice the Hero, Weissmuller threw in a gimme. When told that there was only one more race – the 150-yard backstroke – which was not one of his events, he replied, “It is tonight.” Despite not actively competing in the backstroke, he set a world record.

In 1923, Weissmuller was in his prime and ready for the 1924 Paris Olympics. But when he was 15 years old, he was a tall, wiry youth who worked as a bellhop at a hotel in Chicago to help his family make ends meet, who also happened to enjoy swimming. He had a friend in the famed Illinois Athletic Club (IAC) who trained under Bill Bachrach, considered one of America’s best swimming coaches.

Thanks to his friend, Weissmuller eventually got a chance to show Bachrach what he could do in the pool. According to Twice the Hero, Weissmuller recalled, “as I look back now, my stroke was terrible. I plunged into the water and started to swim my head off. At the end of the 25 yards – 75 yards from my goal – I was completely exhausted. I was ashamed of myself. It was then that I received the most important lesson – in swimming or in life. Bachrach told me to swim for form and not for speed. Throughout my career I swam for form. Speed came as a result of it.”

In the brilliant biography of Duke Kahanamoku, entitled Waterman, author David Davis wrote that Bachrach instantly saw the potential in young Weissmuller.

Johnny Weissmuller age 17_Twice the Hero
Johnny Weissmuller age 17, from the book, Twice the Hero

It didn’t take long for Bachrach to realize that he had found an unpolished gem. Johnny stood six feet three inches. He was lanky yet powerfully build, with impossibly wide shoulders. Beneath a mass of gleaming black hair, he sported a cocky, devil-may-care grin that concealed a Teutonic work ethic. Bachrach bemoaned Johnny’s horrible thrashing in the water but was impressed enough to present him with a golden ticket: membership to the IAC and access to the indoor pool inside the twelve-story clubhouse on Michigan Avenue.

For a year, Bachrach kept Weissmuller out of competition, working step by step, first on his arm movement, and then on his legs. Weissmuller was a devoted student, understanding and mastering the relaxed arm stroke, as well as the leg kick of the greatest sprinter of the time and Olympic champion, Duke Kahanamoku. He mastered the fast start of his teammate and Olympic champion Norman Ross, and mimicked the lane turn of another great swimming champion, Harry Hebner.

Weissmuller was such a good student, Bachrach asked his prodigy to take a leap. Quit the hotel bellhop job, and deal with short-term financial insecurity in exchange for the possibility of becoming the world’s greatest swimmer. Weissmuller had big dreams and they weren’t on the hotel lobby floor.

In January, 1921, only three months after Weissmuller was introduced to Bachrach, Weissmuller participated in a contest at the IAC pool. Apparently he was so nervous he false started three times, but still ended up second in this unsanctioned race. A couple of months later, Bachrach entered Weissmuller into a 500-year freestyle competition, in which he came in second to Ross. Bachrach wanted to see how his boy would react to the pressure, and on the whole, he handled it well. Bachrach kept Weissmuller under wraps for five more months until he thought he was ready for prime time.

Finally entered into an official AAU competition in August, 1921 at the Duluth Boat Club in Minnesota, the 17-year old was up against world-class competition. And on that one day on August 6, Weissmuller, seemingly out of nowhere, won the 50-yard freestyle, 100-yard freestyle, 120-yard freestyle and 150-yard freestyle races.

A star was born. Because from that point on for another 7 years, Johnny Weissmuller would emerge victorious in every single competition he entered.