An open water swimmer before his time, Buster Crabbe lived in a mountain lodge at Lake Arrowhead, a mountain resort about 80 miles east of Los Angeles. According to Phil Cooper, (who is a retired engineer, Air Force veteran, and Masters swimmer from Long Beach, California), Buster swam throughout the year in Lake Arrowhead. “Yes, he was swimming nearly every day. It was freezing, especially in winter. But he would be there…there’s Buster swimming across the lake…,” he recalled.
Buster Crabbe, by-name of Clarence Lindon Crabbe, was born in Oakland, California, on February. 7,1908. When he was 18 months old, his family moved to the Hawaiian Islands, where his father became overseer at a pineapple plantation. Buster learned to swim at the age of five. At Puna Hou High School in Honolulu, he was a 16-letter man. He won a letter every year in football, basketball, track and swimming.
He returned to the mainland to attend the University of Southern California in Los Angeles where he was the school’s first All-American swimmer (1931), a 1931 NCAA freestyle titlist, and while a first year law student there, he won a place on the U.S. Olympic swimming team.
He competed at the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam, winning a bronze medal in the 1,500-meter freestyle and finishing in fourth place in the 400-meter freestyle.
At the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles, Crabbe faced World record holder Jean Taris of France, and Olympic record holder Takashi Yokoyama of Japan in the 400-meter freestyle finals. Taris led most of the race, but Crabbe pulled even with 25 meters to go and reached the wall one-tenth of a second ahead of Taris to set an Olympic record (4 min 48.4 sec) and win the gold medal. He also came in fifth place in the 1500 meter free. At these Olympics he was the only U.S. gold medalist in men’s swimming.
Altogether he holds sixteen World records and thirty-five National Records.
After the Games, Hollywood movie producers, aware of the acting success enjoyed by Johnny Weissmuller after his Olympic swimming gold, signed Crabbe to an acting contract. He was signed by Paramount Studios, who were looking for a rival to MGMs Johnny Weissmuller as Tarzan. He starred in 175 movies, including the title roles in the Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers serials. He also appeared on television, authored fitness books, and owned a successful swimming pool company.
In 1946, Crabbe’s continuous swimming paid off when he co-starred with his former swimming great, Johnny Weissmuller, in the movie Swamp Fire. At 42, Weissmuller was no longer in great shape, but the two performed a climactic underwater fight-to-the-death scene as their competitive juices never wavered, even in the ice cold water. Crabbe’s cold water training in Lake Arrowhead helped him greatly, because the water was kept cold during filming in order to keep the alligators lethargic.
In 1965, he was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame. In 1972 and 1973 Buster Crabbe swam a few Masters events, however, at that time Masters swimming was just being developed and was under the umbrella of AAU.
Crabbe remained in shape throughout his life. He was a life-long advocate of physical fitness. He conducted televised physical fitness programs and had extensive business interests, including Buster Crabbe Swim Pools. From Tarzan to Flash Gordon, from Billy the Kid to Wyatt Earp, Crabbe continued to play a number of roles in television and film while staying in shape by swimming. Crabbe recalls the good versus evil theme of his over 45 movies in the 1940s in this genre. “The plots [of the Westerns] were simple ones. Basically, there were four standard formats: cattle rustlers, land grabbers, outlaws stealing money or gold, or outlaws terrorizing a community.”
Since his early days swimming in Waikiki Beach where he grew up as a child, to his winter swimming in Lake Arrowhead later in his life, Crabbe was an aquatic icon.