The End of an Era
Adolph “Sonny Boy” Kiefer 1918 – 2017
Adolph Kiefer, the legendary backstroker who won gold in the 100-meter backstroke at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, died on Friday, May 5, 2017, at his home in Wadsworth, Ill. He was 98. He was America’s oldest living Olympic champion.
By Kiefer’s account, his swimming life began with a near-drowning. Falling by accident into an ice-cold Chicago drainage canal as a child, and not knowing how to swim, he instinctively rolled onto his back and began kicking his feet furiously until he reached dry ground. He promptly took swimming lessons at a YMCA and became devoted to the sport, swimming in Lake Michigan and entering competitions that would carry him to the Olympics.
His father, a German-born candy-maker, died when he was only 12, but had encouraged his son to be the “best swimmer in the world”. Working furiously to make this a reality, he swam in any pool he could find. On Sundays, when the Wilson Avenue YMCA was closed, he would hop onto trucks, jump streetcars, anything to get to the only available pool, which was at the Jewish Community Center. He firmly believed that the reason he became a world champion was simple: he loved swimming more than anyone else.
At the 1933 World’s Fair, he worked as a lifeguard in the Baby Ruth pool, which hosted exhibitions by swimming champions. Kiefer pestered one recognizable figure in attendance, Tex Robertson, captain of the University of Michigan swim team, until Tex finally agreed to coach him. That Thanksgiving, Adolph, then 16 years old, hitchhiked to Michigan where Robertson coached him. “Who’s that kid in the pool?” asked Michigan’s legendary coach, Matt Mann. Robertson replied, “Kiefer, I’m helping him.” Taking out his watch, Mann said, “Let’s see that kid swim a hundred”. Kiefer swam it. Mann looked at his watch and said — “I don’t believe this … do it again!” Kiefer did. Dumbfounded Mann replied, “You just broke the world record — twice!” At the age of 17, his time became official at a meet, and he became the first man to swim the 100-yard backstroke in less than one minute, according to the International Swimming Hall of Fame, which inducted him in 1965.
Sonny Boy Kiefer, as he was widely known in later life, won a gold medal at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, setting a record which would remain unbeaten for 15 years.
There was some doubt though, as to whether Adolph Kiefer and the other athletes would go to the Berlin Olympics at all. Both the United States and England were considering a boycott of the German Olympics — “the Nazi Olympics.” In the end though, the U.S. team did go.
In Berlin, Adolf Hitler sought to exploit the Games as a showcase of Aryan athletic superiority — a plan that would be undermined by the success of the African-American sprinter and long-jumper Jesse Owens. Kiefer never tired of talking about the Berlin Olympics, where he befriended Owens, who won four gold medals.
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 told the University of Texas in 2014, if he had known then what he knows now, “I would have thrown him in the pool and drowned him. But how do you know?” He also said, “…I even can’t stand the name Adolph now. But I’m stuck with it.”
Finishing in first place awarded Kiefer a gold medal and a new Olympic record. Although Adolph was just reaching his peak in swimming, the start of World War II, which cancelled the Olympic Games in 1940 and 1944, sent him on a different path. If the war denied Kiefer a chance for more Olympic gold, it nevertheless gave him, in his view, his greatest satisfaction.
After the 1936 Olympics, Kiefer swam professionally for years, losing only twice in numerous competitions.
Kiefer continued to improve in swimming, reaching his peak about a decade later, when he was in his 20s. Tall and good-looking, Kiefer was courted by Hollywood and drew comparisons to matinee idols.
Kiefer went on to college — actually three universities: Texas, Columbia and Northwestern — but did not earn a degree.
He married his wife Joyce, who would be his business partner and his partner in life for more than 73 years, until her death in 2015. His grandson says, the couple opened their backyard swimming pool in Northfield, Il, so that the neighborhood kids could learn to swim.
He entered the Navy in 1942 as a specialist in the physical fitness and swimming division. In the Navy, he rose to the rank of Lieutenant. After joining the U.S. Navy, Adolph saw the greatest loss in lives was due to drowning; the Navy was losing more lives to drowning than to gunfire. With his superiors’ approval, he set about planning swimming and lifesaving instruction for the entire Navy. He called it his “greatest thrill.”
With this knowledge, he formed a committee and helped to implement a training program that taught the “victory backstroke” to over 2 million troops, saving many lives in the process.
“No one could get on a ship without taking a 21-hour course in swimming,” Kiefer said. “We designed lifesaving equipment and taught them what we called the victory backstroke” — which began with the arms extended over the head forming a V.
After World War II, Hollywood producers wanted Kiefer to try the movies, in one case offering him the role of Tarzan. And Bob Kiphuth, the celebrated coach at Yale, wanted him to become an assistant coach. But Kiefer turned them all down and began manufacturing swimming pool and lifesaving equipment under the name Adolph Kiefer and Associates.
His passion to continue helping people all over the world with water safety is seen in the products he invented and supported. To this day, Adolph’s famous words, “Let’s keep ‘em swimming” can be heard through the halls of his company, where up to a week before his death he was calling in with new ideas to bring to the swimming world.
Together, Adolph and Joyce Kiefer built Kiefer Swim, a swimming equipment company that he is said to have joked sold “everything but the water.” They developed the nylon swimsuit, and the first non-turbulent racing lane, which helped to level the playing field by making it harder for swimmers to “ride the wake” of a swimmer in another lane.
Adolph’s love for swimming has reached so many and that passion will be remembered forever.