Eri Yamamoto and Yamawaki

Eri Yamamoto-MacDonald navigates the world in a wheelchair. No matter how fast this para-athlete swims, or how many goals she scores as an ice sledge hockey competitor, or how many kilograms she pushes into the air as a competitive powerlifter, when people see her, they see someone who needs help.

At an American Chamber of Commerce Japan event on June 2, 2017, Yamamoto-MacDonald of The Nippon Foundation told a fairly typical story, for her, of going to a store to buy rice. When she got to the cashier to pay for a 5kg bag of rice, the person working there took notice of her wheelchair and asked her, “are you able to carry that bag of rice?” She understood the person was not acting mean, but she was frustrated that as a power weightlifter, who lifts 50 kilograms in competition, is seen as so helpless that she can’t lift 5. “They are not seeing me as an athlete. They are seeing me as a disabled person.”

For joint speakers, Yamamoto-MacDonald, as well as Yasushi Yamawaki, also of the Nippon Foundation and president of the Japan Paralympic Committee, it is their mission to change the perceptions of people regarding individuals with impairments. “It’s not about disability, it’s about ability,” said Yamawaki. “We take the word ‘impossible’, and add an apostrophe between the ‘I’ and the ‘m’, because we like to say ‘I’m possible’. To us, nothing is impossible.”

Yamamoto-MacDonald, who has not had the use of her legs since birth, has been working in the Nippon Foundation Paralympic Support Center with a goal of bringing social change to Japan. It’s important to change the tangibles, she said, designing infrastructure and venues to make it easier for people with impairments to navigate and take advantage of their surroundings. But it’s more important to deal with the intangibles. “Changing peoples’ minds is more important. Having them watch high performance para-athletes can change people’s perceptions towards people with disabilities.”

Nippon Foundation produces an Education Toolkit, called “I’m Possible”, which they distribute to schools throughout the country. So far they have handed out 23,000 toolkits nationwide. Nippon Foundation has organized visits by para-athletes to over 100 elementary, junior high and high schools last year. The plan is to visit 250 schools in 2017 and 1,000 by 2020.

The education is important because it is often the social environment that highlights the disability of an individual, as Yamamoto-MacDonald explained. If the work environment of a person with an impairment allows that person to move about and do the things he or she wants or needs to do, the so-called disability can be rendered unnoticeable. But if the physical environment caters to so-called able-bodied people only, and the surrounding individuals consciously or unconsciously behave or speak in a way that ignores or demeans those with impairments, then as Yamamoto-MacDonald observed, the social environment creates the disability.

She explained that at her workplace in the Nippon Foundation, everyone works to chip away at both the tangible and intangible barriers people with impairments face. However, while her workplace allows her to live a relatively normal life, she finds Japanese society less accommodating. “Japanese people are very polite. But in public, they are not. If I’m traveling by train, I need to use the elevators. But people who have the option of stairs and escalators push their way in front of me to get into the elevators.” She said that in contrast, while London still needed to make improvements to infrastructure, they had a better mindset, even back in 2012.

Yamamoto MacDonald and Roy

At the London Paralympics, I worked at the Japan House to build awareness for the Tokyo 2020 bid. To get to the venue I had to take public transpiration. I got off at a station where there were no elevators. The officers told me that I had to get off at the station before this one. But they made sure I got to the venue. The people’s mindset is very important, even without all of the infrastructure. I got to where I needed to go in London. Tokyo doesn’t have that mindset. People need to care a little more. It would be better to have more accessibility, but it is accessibility in the heart that is more important.

Yamamoto-MacDonald talked about how important it is for companies to expose themselves more to people with impairments, and to understand that engaging with a wider variety of people is an opportunity. In fact, she said that CSR, which stands for Corporate Social Responsibility, should really be re-labeled CSO, or Corporate Social Opportunity. It’s an opportunity for corporations and wider society to understand the power of diversity and inclusion. But it is also a way to expand opportunities for people like her. This is key for two reasons: to motivate those with impairments who feel different and isolated, as well as to unlock the potential abilities in the disabled.

I never got asked about my hobbies, or what sports I like. When I was 9, I was so shy. I couldn’t say “thank you”. Why is it only me who has to say “thank you” all the time, I thought. I couldn’t say “thank you” back because I felt I couldn’t help anyone. But when I began swimming, I gained confidence. I swam faster, faster than even able-bodied swimmers. That’s when I started saying “thank you”. As I grew more confident, I began to dream of being a Paralympian, going to the Paralympics. Since I began having that dream, it has become my identity.

An injury at 16 made it difficult for Yamamoto-MacDonald to continue her swimming career. She went to Canada and became proficient at ice sledge hockey, but she also understood this kind of hockey was not yet a Paralympics event. When she returned to Japan, she did not have a specialization that could focus her training for 2020, until she stumbled upon powerlifting.

Last year, the Tokyo Metropolitan government sponsored a special event – a power-lifting exhibition. I saw big guys lifting hundreds of kilograms. My boss told me to give it a try. I grabbed 20kg and it was light! It was fun! I saw other women stop at 20kg but I was able to lift 40 kg. Since then I have been powerlifting.

She explained we rarely see powerlifting on television or live. There are very few events and opportunities, and the opportunities for people with impairments to see para-athletes is very low. “You have to meet the right people for the right chance to come around.” And that is something Yamawaki explained is key to driving societal change – the need to create greater exposure of para-athletes to society to show what is possible.

Yamawaki ended the talk with a video from the International Paralympics Committee. As you can see in the video below, there is a strong push to bring sports opportunities to youth with impairments, that motivating them earlier in their lives will lead them to greater choices and fuller lives.

“It’s not about what people can’t do, it’s what they can do,” he said.

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Queen Wilhemina
Queen Wilhemina

In a sprint, seconds count. And in sprints in the pool, swallowing water can cost seconds. “I had always dreaded swallowing a mouthful of water,” said legendary swimmer, Johnny Weissmuller, quoted in David Fury’s biography, Twice the Hero.

There he was, in his best event at the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics, perhaps singing his swan song as an amateur athlete. At the turn of the mid-way point in the 100-meter race, Wesismuller did what he feared – he gulped a mouthful of water. “I felt like blacking out. I swallowed the stuff and lost two valuable yards. Lucky for me, we still had some forty meters to go – with only ten or so, I’d never have made it.”

But make it he did, winning the gold medal in the 100 meters in Olympic record time. He added another gold in the 4×200 meter relay. The only reason he didn’t win three golds, as he did in 1924, was because his coach asked him to join the water polo team instead of the 400-meter race, a competition he would likely have won.

Still, Weissmuller won five gold medals over two Olympics, and was again, one of the great stars of the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics. Queen Wilhelmenia of Holland was there to award Weissmuller his gold medals, as well as a special award for his overall athletic excellence.

Weissmuller went on to live a full life as one of the world’s most renowned figures. (Even rebel soldiers in Havana, Cuba recognized him.) He starred as Tarzan in 12 films, made a fortune in Billy Rose’s Aquacade, and married five times. His second wife of two years, the short and sultry Lupe Vélez played quite the contrast to the tall and easygoing Weissmuller.

In the book, Tarzan, My Father, the author, Johnny Jr told of an epic fight between the couple. They were staying in a suite at the Claridge Hotel in London. Vélez had gone to bed and Weissmuller retired to a quiet book. But according to Weissmuller, his wife awoke suddenly, grabbed a shoe and began hitting her husband repeatedly over the head with hit.

I leaped out of bed and tried to grab her and calm her down. She ran out of the room, into the hallway, screaming at the top of her lungs, “Socorro! Help mee! Murrder!” U was wearing only my pajama top and was naked as a jaybird from the waist down, but I ran down the hall hoping to catcher her and try to stop this uproar. Suddenly, to my right, a door opened, and a matronly lady in nightcap and gown stared at me in wonder. I nodded, mumbled an apology of some sort, and continued the chase. On the second turn around the corridor, the matronly lady shouted at me, “Faster Johnny! You’ll catch her the next time around, I’m sure!”

Johnny Weissmuller and Lupe Vélez _Twice a Hero
Johnny Weissmuller and Lupe Vélez, from the book, Twice a Hero

He did indeed catch her, reeled her back to the room, and went to sleep. Unfortunately, the next morning, they found an eviction notice slipped under their door. By that time, the couple had made up, laughed off the incident and the eviction, packed their bags and were about to leave their room to check out when they got a knock on their door. It was the manager, who explained somewhat sheepishly that there was a reverse in their decision and that they were welcome to stay in the hotel as long as they wished. What did the manager say?

It seems, sir, that last night you passed the door of Queen Wilhemina of the Netherlands, and she spoke with you. She informs me that she once presented you with two gold medals following the Olympic games, as well as one of her own. It appears that she has a great fondness for you, and she quite firmly stated that if you leave, she is leaving also. I do apologize again, sir, and I hope that you will do us the honor of remaining.

Weissmuller lived a charmed life, and apparenly always got the royal treatment.

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.

Johnny Weissmuller and Duke Kahanamoku
Johnny Weissmuller and Duke Kahanamoku

In the summer of 1921, Johnny Weissmuller broke the world record for the 100-yard event in open water. The previous owner of that record was Duke Kahanomoku, the amazing Hawaiian swimmer who won five medals over three Olympics spanning the years 1912 to 1924.

As Weissmuller won race after race, and broke record after record, the lanky, broad-shouldered boy from Chicago was building a reputation for invincibility. No one could beat him as he crossed over into 1922. But many at the time believed that, until he defeated the champion from the 1920 Antwerp Olympics, Duke Kahanamoku, Weissmuller would not be considered the fastest swimmer in the world.

At the end of June, 1922, a faceoff was looking very likely as the AAU National Championships were being held off the beaches of Honolulu Hawaii, where Kahanmoku lived. And the press, according to David Davis, in his well-written biography of Duke, called “Waterman“, were licking their chops in anticipation of this battle of the titans.

The newspapers played up their differences. Duke was symmetrically muscular with a powerful upper body and thighs that seemed custom-made for springs. Johnny had “wide shoulders, flat belly, no hips or buttocks, long, slender, smooth-muscled legs and arms,” according to sportswriter Paul Gallic. Duke was a pure sprinter; Johnny was versatile enough to win at distance events up to 500 meters and at other disciplines besides the freestyle. Duke was old school: reserved and circumspect. Johnny was jazz age: he liked to play the rogue and was an inveterate skirt chaser…. The anticipation that Duke, the human fish, would face off against Johnny, the human hydroplane, was keen.

Johnny Weissmuller and Duke Kahanamoku 2In the end, the public did not get to see Kahanamoku swim against Weissmuller in the AAU National Championships. Weissmuiller was there. The Duke, he was there. But only Weissmuller entered the pool.

According to Weissmuller’s coach Bill Bachrach, in David Fury’s biography of Weissmuller – Twice the Hero – Kahanamoku wisely pulled out of the competition, with some prompting by Bachrach himself. The coach said he gave Kahanamoku his stopwatch and time him himself.

Bachrach sent Johnny into the 25-yeard Punahou pool, and he swam at his top speed as the Duke timed him for 100-years. Kahanamoku was stunned as he watched Johnny swim faster than the Duke had ever done, confirmed by the stopwatch held by his own trembling hand. There was fear in the Duke’s heart, because he knew if he raced on the morrow he would be beaten by this relative newcomer to the swimming wars. The next day, all newspapers announced that the Duke had taken ill, and had left Honolulu to recuperate.

The flip side of this battle of egos was that Kahanamoku never intended to compete in the AAU event. According to members of the Kahanamoku camp, the Duke was actually in poor health, having lost some 10 kilos and was in no condition. And apparently, he was readying for his departure to Los Angeles. According to Davis, Olympic track sprinting champion, Charlie Paddock was adamant that Kahanamoku was not afraid of Weissmuller. “Duke did not quit the swim game because of Weissmuller. He quit because of personal reasons, one of them being that it is necessary to work to make a living, and you cannot work while traveling around the country swimming as an amateur.”

Of course, another consideration is that Kahanamoku was 14 years older than Weissmuller, and whose prime years went untested as the 1916 and 1920 Olympics were cancelled. So if Kahanamoku did decide to dance around possible encounters with the young and future king, it would not be hard to understand.

Regardless, whether you were Team Weissmuller or Team Kahanamoku, you had to wait until the 1924 Olympics before the two would go head to head. And as the two stood at the edge of the pool, just prior to the finals of the 100-meter sprint, Duke is reported to have offered this win-win proposition: “Johnny, good luck. The most important thing in this race is to get the American flag up there three times. Let’s do it.”

At the end of the race, only Americans stood on the winner’s podium, the crowd saluting two of the century’s greatest champions.

 

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.

Eleanor Holm headline news

It was headline news, literally.

For example, the front page of the Riverside Daily Press on July 24, 1935 blared across the full length of the front page, “Gay Cocktail Parties Result in Dismissal of Eleanor Holm Jarrett”.

Under the word “Ousted”, was a lithe Eleanor Holm in a skin-tight swimsuit posing like a Hollywood starlet. The caption read “Eleanor Holm Jarrett, attractive night club queen-swimmer who was dropped from the American Olympic team for indulging in liquor and parties contrary to training rules.” The article started with a provocative lead – “The one member of the American Olympic swimming team who appeared the most certain to win a title, Mrs. Eleanor Holm Jarrett, prepared to return home today.”

Eleanor Holm on cover of Look Magazine

Holm was the Olympic champion in the 100-meter backstroke, having won gold convincingly at the 1932 Los Angeles Games. Married to a jazz band leader, Art Jarrett, and very much used to the life as a celebrity, Holm did not take to the third-class accommodations on the SS Manhattan, which was transporting the US Olympic team to Europe and the Berlin Olympics.

According to The Book of Olympic Lists, by David Wallechinsky and Jaime Loucky, Holm – a veteran of two Olympiads – she wanted to be where the officials and the press were: first class. When an executive of the company that owned the SS Manhattan invited Holm up to first class for a party, the only Olympian invited, she of course said yes.

Quick to accept, she stayed up until six a.m., matching drinks with the sportswriters. She had to be helped back to her cabin. The next day there was much joking and wisecracking among the non-Olympic first-class passengers about the “training techniques” of the US team. Embarrassed US Olympic officials issued Holm a warning, but she was defiant and continued to drink in public off and on for the next few days. When advised by friends to moderate her behavior, she reminded them that she was “free, white, and 22”.

Wallenchinsky and Loucky described further examples of Holm’s drunken adventures on the SS Manhattan. On the evening of July 23, shortly before reaching Europe, the ship’s doctor found Holm “in a deep slumber which approached a state of coma”, which he diagnosed as acute alcoholism. The next morning, the American Olympic team manager woke Holm up and informed her that American Olympic Committee had voted to remove her from the team.

The next day, the press included the official announcement from Avery Brundage, the US Olympic Committee chairman. “Mrs. Eleanor Holm Jarrett has been dropped from the Olympic team and her entry has been withdrawn on account of violation of training rules. I wish to emphasize that there is no reflection in any way upon the entire team.” According to the press, Holm was requested to return to the United States.

Unfortunately for Brundage, Holm was immediately hired by news gatherer, the Associated Press to write a column, presumably about anything she wanted (presumably since she felt her Olympic career was over and her amateur status no longer a requirement). With press credentials, Holm was in Berlin to stay, and with her star power, she was at all of the biggest social gatherings. According to Holm in the book, Tales of Gold, Brundage didn’t like playing second fiddle to her.

A funny sidelight to Brundage kicking me off the team was that I was invited to everything in Berlin, and he would be there, too. He would be so miserable because I was at all these important functions. I would ignore him – like he wasn’t even alive. I really think he hated the poor athletes. How dare I be there and taking away his thunder? You see, they all wanted to talk to me.

Eleanor Holm at the press gallery at the 1936 Berlin Olympics
Eleanor Holm at the press gallery at the 1936 Berlin Olympics
Holm said she hung out with Herman Goering, and regularly got autographs from Adolph Hitler. She claimed that famed documentarian, Leni Riefenstahl, filmed her in the pool, although that footage was apparently left on the cutting floor. Despite the socializing, Holm wrote that she trained every day just in case she was reinstated to the team. In the end, however, Brundage would not budge and the world watched a Dutch woman named Nida Senff win gold in the backstroke.

Holm would go on to divorce Jarrett and marry a man named Billy Rose, who produced a hugely popular music, dance and swim show called Billy Rose’s Aquacade, where she would become an even brighter star, swimming with fellow Olympic champions Johnny Weissmuller and Buster Crabbe.

Holm passed away in 2004 at the age of 90, her star dimmed by the passage of time. But in the mid-20th century, during the Depression and War years, there were few brighter stars than Eleanor Holm.

Eleanor Holm 1932 Olympic beauties
Eleanor Holm is number 6; from The Daily Herald Biloxi Mississippi, August 5, 1932

The daughter of a fireman, perhaps it’s no wonder that little Eleanor loved the water from an early age.

“I had no fear of the water, and I used to go way out in the ocean, and a lifeguard had to come out and keep getting me,” explained Eleanor Holm in the book, Tales of Gold, of her childhood at her family’s summer cottage in Long Beach, New York.

Winning competitions from the age of 13, Eleanor Holm was selected at the age of 14 to the national swim team to represent the United States at the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics. Holm placed fifth in her specialty – the 100-meter backstroke.

At the age of 17, the beauty from Brooklyn was offered a chance to travel with the Ziegfeld Follies, one of the dominant entertainment machines of American pop culture of the time, but Holm declined. She was determined to participate and win at the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics. Holm as an adult had a reputation as the life of the party. But in 1932, as she got herself ready for the Olympics, she insists she was very serious, to the point of being a party pooper.

In 1932, when nothing was going to stop me, I used to snitch on the girls if they kept me awake. I’d say to the coaches, “Did you know she was out last night? She didn’t get in until 10 o’clock.” Nobody believes this now.

Holm’s focus paid off. On August 9, the backstroker set a blistering pace to set the world record in the 100 meters. Two days later, with a comfortable, lead, Holm took the gold medal with seconds to spare over Philomena Meaning of Australia.

As The New York Times reported on August 12, 1932, “not once did Miss Holm pay any attention to the guiding line of red flags strung overhead. She stroked rhythmically and perfectly, but her black-capped head was ever turned toward Miss Mealing’s lane. It was not until she was ten meters from the end and well ahead that the Brooklyn girl paid strict attention to her own race. Then she flailed away at the water in a sprint finish that insured her triumph beyond any doubt.”

After her Olympic triumph, not far from the Hollywood hills, a star was born. As she told David Anderson of The New York Times in 1984, ”I was hardly dry at those Olympics when I was whisked from one studio to another – Warner Brothers, MGM, Paramount – to take movie tests. In the years before the next Olympics, I took diction lessons and drama lessons but as it turned out, I was only in one movie. I was Jane in a Tarzan movie. Glen Morris was Tarzan.”

In a 1992 interview with Sports Illustrated, Holm said that she signed a contract with Warner Brothers only eleven days after her gold medal victory. “They sent me to school to learn how to act,” said Holm. “I started out at $500 a week, and I was supposed to go to the studio or take an acting lesson from Josephine Dillon, Clark Gable’s first wife, every day. There was a great director at Warner then named Mervyn LeRoy, and I did bit parts in a few of his movies. Douglas Fairbanks Jr. was there then, and Carole Lombard and Edward G. Robinson. The studio would make me go to their sets to learn how to act. And I was impressed, seeing the stars and the celebrities. So I’d ask them for their autographs!”

Eleanor Holm on cover of Time Magazine

But after only nine months, Holm was given a difficult choice. Because the studio wanted her to swim in the movies, she felt that would jeopardize her amateur status and prevent her from possibly competing in the 1936 Berlin Olympics. She would later go on to star in movies about herself, as well as in the 1938 film, Tarzan’s Revenge, but in 1933, she got out of her contract with Warner Brothers.

“It’s funny, but I never really had any ambition to be an actress. God knows the studio tried, but I still have my Brooklyn accent, don’t I? And they spent a lot of money for me to lose it! They tried to groom me for light comedy, but the only thing I ever wanted was to win the Olympics.”

Fortunately, in Los Angeles in 1932, she did. Holm did not get a second chance in 1936.

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.”

Roy with 1964 Tokyo Olympic Torch
Roy with 1964 Tokyo Olympic Torch
The Olympians has been a labor of love for exactly two years. It is my sketchbook as I prepare for the mural masterpiece, a book on the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

While my book’s focus is on the XVIII Tokyo Olympiad, I use my blog as an excuse to write about anything even remotely related to these areas: the Tokyo Olympics, the Olympics overall, Japan, and sports in general. In other words, I think of my blog as therapy for a restlessly curious mind.

How else could I go 730 straight days without missing a post?

Enjoy!

Japan 1964

 

Tokyo 2020

 

Random Rambles

Roy's 2nd Birthday
Roy’s 2nd Birthday
It’s been exactly two years since I started my journey to understand the context, the organization and the stories of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. My father was at those games as a news producer for NBC, and I turned one years old on Opening Day.

I moved to Tokyo for a third time in January, 2014, excited by Tokyo’s selection as the host city for the 2020 Summer Games. Surprised to find not a single book on the 1964 Tokyo Olympics in English, I endeavored to write the definitive record. On May 1, 2015, I started my blog, The Olympians is in many ways, the first draft of my book.

All, thank you for your wonderful comments and support!

 

Olympians 1964

 

Amazing Olympians