Monday, July 28, 2008

Adolph Kiefer: the most important person in the history of (Olympic) swimming as a sport?

From Kevin Helliker in the WSJ...

After turning 90 on Friday, Adolph Kiefer will rise early this morning and swim. That has been his routine since childhood, since before the 1936 race in Berlin that earned him an Olympic gold medal. He doesn't plan to stop.

"I know I won't get to 200, but gosh darn it, I'm going to try," Mr.Kiefer said last week after finishing a 35-minute swim inside his rural home.

Of all the swimmers participating in the U.S. Olympic trials, which begin Sunday in Omaha, Neb., none is more tenacious than Adolph Kiefer. Once a medal winner at the trials, Mr. Kiefer now owns a company that furnishes the event with stopwatches, whistles, pace clocks and other equipment. A new responsibility this year: running (on behalf of Speedo) the official retail shop inside the trials arena. Mr. Kiefer's 61-year-old catalog company has been opening retail stores for less than 10 years. "We're making progress," he says.

To many swimmers today, Kiefer is just a brand of kickboard. But in the 1930s and 1940s, the man behind the brand was a national celebrity, appearing in advertisements for products such as Lifebuoy soap and Gillette razors, and performing at swimming exhibitions around the country.

"Back then, America's top swimmers were better known than Michael Phelps is today," says Bruce Wigo, chief executive of the International Swimming Hall of Fame in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Several Olympic swimmers of that era -- Johnny Weissmuller, Buster Crabbe, Esther Williams -- became Hollywood stars.

Of all the young hopefuls competing Sunday through July 8 in Omaha, few beyond Michael Phelps will ever exceed the aquatic accomplishments of Mr. Kiefer. As a Chicago high-school swimmer, he shattered the world record for the 100-yard backstroke, becoming the first swimmer to finish in under a minute. (America's Ryan Lochte holds the current record at 44.6 seconds.)

For 12 years, Mr. Kiefer dominated international races in the backstroke as well as the individual medley. In a career that spanned more than 2,000 races, he lost only twice. One of his world records stood for 12 years.

"I've been honored to be mentioned alongside the greatest backstrokers ever," says Lenny Krayzelburg, the just-retired four-time Olympic gold medalist. "And Adolph's name is always one of the first to come up."

Mr. Kiefer's only Olympic competition won him a gold medal at age 17, along with a handshake from Adolf Hitler, who went on to launch the war that canceled the Games of 1940 and 1944. Mr. Kiefer says he has never lamented the Olympic medals he likely lost to the war, because military officials in Washington gave him a more-important challenge: creating and running a program to teach sailors how to swim.

"We were losing more men to drowning than to bullets," says Mr. Kiefer, a Navy officer during World War II. "I'm prouder of any lives I saved than of the gold medal."

By 1948, when the Games resumed, Mr. Kiefer was a father of two and founder of a fledging swimming-goods business called Adolph Kiefer & Associates.

Today, Mr. Kiefer is known throughout the aquatic industry for his innovations. In an era of cotton and wool, Mr. Kiefer introduced the first nylon suit, making Kiefer the swimsuit of choice in the 1952 Olympics. In the 1960s he developed the first turbulence-resistant lane line, using buoys that absorb rather than bounce back swimmers' wakes. Other innovations have involved water skis, chlorine treatments, rescue devices and spine boards.

At the moment, Mr. Kiefer is working with the federal Centers for Disease Control on technology to combat the spread of chlorine-resistant bacteria that have caused outbreaks of illness in public pools.

"Adolph Kiefer is absolutely on the cutting edge of the swimming industry," says Michael Beach, a scientist and associate director for healthy water at the CDC. "He's 90 years old, and yet he's present at every meeting on this issue."

Kiefer & Associates has never thrived financially off its founder's inventions. Mr. Kiefer has never enforced one of his 14 patents, in part because he believes his improvements ought to be available to purchasers of every brand, and in part because he thrives off the success of other brands.

The revenue engine of his $20-million-dollar-a-year company is a catalog touting "everything but the water since 1947," from the Telescoping Rescue Pole & Life Hook ($57.90) to the latest offerings from swimsuit maker Speedo. The Kiefer catalog is a fixture among pool owners and among swimmers who know that sporting-goods shelves are often bereft of aquatic equipment in fall and winter.

"It has never been Adolph's motivation to dominate the industry or make a lot of money," says William Fischer, a nephew who manages the business. "His goal has always been to make swimming safer and available to everyone."

Once teamed with baseball slugger Ted Williams to promote public swim instruction, Mr. Kiefer continues financing efforts to teach children, particularly minorities, how to swim.

Mr. Kiefer has strong opinions about a new generation of swimsuits featuring polyurethane, which he says boosts buoyancy. These suits, such as Speedo's LZR, are worn by many competitive swimmers and have drawn controversy, as some critics say they give an artificial advantage.

Although some makers of the suits, including Speedo, sell their products through his catalog, Mr. Kiefer says he is among those who think the suits should be outlawed in competition. To illustrate why, he recalls breaking a world record in the 400-meter backstroke in Copenhagen in 1935 and then being told his record was disqualified because the pool was found to contain a significant level of salt water, which boosts buoyancy.

"Just like salt water, this new suit provides artificial buoyancy," he says. The high-tech suits are approved for the Summer Games in Beijing.

"Although the Speedo LZR Racer does help a swimmer maintain a streamlined body position through the water, the suit is not buoyant and fully complies with FINA regulations," says Speedo Vice President Craig Brommers. FINA is the international governing body for competitive swimming.

U.S. Olympic officials believe Mr. Kiefer is the nation's oldest living aquatic gold medalist. To judge from the early deaths of his parents and seven siblings, his high-quality longevity is not genetic. Friends and relatives say one explanation is marital.

When 88-year-old Joyce Kiefer, a former water-ballet performer, isn't mowing their expansive lawn or scrubbing down the extra refrigerator in their garage, she is accompanying him to the offices of Kiefer & Associates, where she manages the accounts-receivable department.

Keeping up with her is a constant challenge for the competitive Mr. Kiefer. The two have been married so long, 66 years, that their four children are grandparents. Nodding at an infant sharing his office at company headquarters one recent day, Mr. Kiefer says, "That's our 11th great-grandchild."

A condition called idiopathic peripheral neuropathy has stiffened Mr. Kiefer's hands and robbed him of the balance needed to walk without assistance. One recent morning, he used a walker to travel from his bedroom to the natatorium on the far side of his house. Crawling into a resistance pool wearing baggy shorts, he told a visitor: "Usually, I do this naked."

In the water, his long backward strokes offer a hint of the power he once wielded. But he no longer swims like an Olympian. His is the routine of a 90-year-old seeking to limit the effects of an incurable disease, and he is succeeding. His chest and legs remain muscular, giving him the strength to use a walker, to pull himself out of chairs, to remain self-sufficient more than two decades after his neuropathy first struck.

"Anybody else with his level of neuropathy would be getting pushed around in a wheelchair," says Gail Lucks, a Denver anesthesiologist who is passionately subjective on this topic. Mr. Kiefer is her father.


At March 8, 2011 at 4:08 PM , Blogger Unknown said...

You have had the privilege of talking to one of the greatest men I have had the honor of knowing in my life. I worked for Adolph for three years and went on to another company, against his advice (and he was right! Always be wary of a French businesman ) however, we have remained friends and speak almost weekly. He has been a mentor for me and I regret that I didn't know him years ago. I make up for that by speaking with him frequently. He is deserving of all the laurels, but I would like to let everyone know what a good man he has been to me and my family

At June 26, 2011 at 10:59 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...


At June 27, 2011 at 3:08 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

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At February 11, 2018 at 2:03 AM , Blogger Unknown said...

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