The Swimming Legend You Never Heard Of If not for a turn of history, Sunny Boy Kiefer would be included in an exalted group of swimmers, from Johnny Weissmuller and Buster Crabbe to Mark Spitz and Michael Phelps. Starting in 1935 when he was 17, Kiefer set backstroke records just about every time he jumped into the pool.
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The Swimming Legend You Never Heard Of

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The Swimming Legend You Never Heard Of

The Swimming Legend You Never Heard Of

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Michael Phelps may be one of the most decorated athletes in history, but commentator Frank Deford says there is another swimmer that should not be overlooked.

FRANK DEFORD: Till now, 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. But except for a little accident of history, Sonny Boy Kiefer would surely have been included in that exalted group.

You've probably never heard of Kiefer, but that historical hiccup that interrupted his career was something called World War II. Starting in 1935 when he was just 17, he 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 Berlin Olympics.

But more important, Kiefer didn't really reach his peak for almost a decade later. Had there been the Tokyo Olympics of 1940 and the London games of '44, Sonny Boy would have surely have 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, Kiefer invented the nylon suit, which finally helped someone else break his Olympic record after 16 years.

Starting in the 1960s, Kiefer pioneered a program that saw the construction of public pools across his hometown of Chicago. 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 then. It allowed Kiefer, he says, to, number one, develop new products for his company, number two, pay for a new driveway for his house, and number three, father another daughter.

Kiefer, you see, is still very much alive. He's 90 years old now, married for 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, another Adolph 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. Kiefer says: If I knew then what I know now, I would have pushed him into the pool.

Seventy-two years on for this Olympics, the erstwhile Sonny Boy and his Joyce watch the swimming from Beijing every night. In the morning, he still swims 45 minutes and then goes to his office at Kiefer & Associates. I'm still a working man, he says.

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

INSKEEP: Commentator Frank Deford is still working. He joins us each Wednesday from member-station WSHU in Fairfield, Connecticut. You hear him on MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

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