The Effortless and Legendary Life of Johnny Weissmuller Part 4: Real-Life Hero Saves 11 Lives

Johnny Weissmuller swimming

There are sports heroes and there are true heroes.

Duke Kahanamoku was a three-time Olympian when he was in Los Angeles on June 14, 1925, saw a yacht overturn in the choppy waters, dove into the ocean and ended up saving 12 people, 8 solely on his own.

Two years later, Johnny Weissmuller, who took over Kahanamoku’s champion mantle a the 1924 Paris Olympics, was able to match the great Duke’s heroism on Lake Michigan in Chicago. On July 28, 1927, Weissmuller and his brother, Peter, were on the choppy waters of the lake training for an upcoming Chicago River Marathon race. Johnny was in the water while Peter was in a row boat following along, coaching and encouraging.

On this particular day, the winds were whipping up, and the bright and sunny day suddenly turned dark and stormy. Unfortunately, a double decker excursion boat called The Favorite was on the water carrying 71 passengers, and was unable to handle the sudden appearance of a “squall with cyclonic force, accompanied by heavy rain”, as Weissmuller biographer, David Fury noted.

Powerful winds quickly tossed passengers from the top deck into the roiling waters. As the boat rolled violently side to side, it took on so much water that the lower decks were plunged under the surface. The brother’s Weissmuller rowed to The Favorite as fast as they could. When they arrived, they were surprised to see the catatonic face of the captain, who sat in a chair on the top deck, holding the hand of a child, clearly in no state to do anything. The brothers in contrast, dove into the dark water to find passengers. They both brought up two children each. At that stage, Johnny barked out for his brother to start reviving the survivors, and that he would go in and bring up others.

According to Fury, Johnny repeatedly dove into the water in search of passengers, primarily women and children, eyes burning, lungs burning. In the end, the brothers pulled up and treated over 20 people. While 27 of the 71 passengers died in this calamity, the Weissmuller brothers alone saved eleven.

Johnny Weissmuller as Tarzan
Maureen O’hara, John Sheffield, Johnny Weissmuller and Cheeta

Heroes to the city of Chicago, the brothers viscerally understood this was nothing to celebrate. They received their recognition with solemn appreciation. But as is often the case when lives are saved, we often forget there are implications beyond time for such bravery.

Thirty five years later, Johnny Weissmuller received a letter from a woman he did not know.

I have seven children and one day, my seven children will have their young ones. This circle of life will continue forever or as long as God grants this earth to remain fertile within the atmosphere. But only you, Mr. Weissmuller, are responsible for this vast miracle that has come to touch my life, because it is you who rescued me from certain death, and enabled me o marry and have my children. I shall always impress upon the minds of my young ones to say a prayer of thanks on your behalf and, god willing, these prayers will last through a part of eternity.