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At 96 Years Old, Olympic Champ And War Hero Adolph Kiefer Is Still Going Strong

By Brad Botkin | Dec. 23, 2014, 3:26 p.m. (ET)

Adolph Kiefer, who won gold in the 100-meter backstroke at the Berlin 1936 Olympic Games, is still considered by some to be the "greatest backstroker ever".

It’s 10:30 a.m. in Wadsworth, Illinois, and Adolph Kiefer, up since 8, is fresh. Vibrant. 

“I just got done swimming for an hour,” he says.

He’s 96 years old.

Every morning it’s the same routine for Kiefer: up at 8 — an hour after his wife, Joyce, to whom he’s been married for 72 years — and into the pool. It still excites him. Swimming. Life. A gold medalist at the Berlin 1936 Olympic Games, Kiefer’s entry at the International Swimming Hall of Fame calls him, “… the greatest backstroker ever.”

It seems a fair enough assessment. In some 2,000 career races, Kiefer lost — ready for this? — twice. In 1935, at just 16 years old, he became the first man in history to swim the 100-meter backstroke in under a minute. The next year he broke 59 seconds. In fact, during his career, Kiefer broke 23 records in all, including every national and world backstroke record in the books.

“My father used to take us from church to Lake Michigan to swim,” Kiefer said. “One day there was this big kid who beat me in the backstroke. I was upset, and my dad said to me, ‘Son, you’re going to be the best swimmer in the world one day.’ I was 10 years old when that happened. My dad died when I was 11. That’s when I decided I was going to be the best swimmer in the world.”

The detail with which Kiefer recalls his life is truly astounding. Conversations from 60, 70, 80 years ago, right down to the word. It’s hard to keep up with him, to be honest. He can be a little all over the place; his energy is that of someone a third his age. But you let him go where the story takes him, off course and around the way, a wonderful stream of consciousness you never want to end — because this life of his, this extraordinary, extraordinary life of his, to listen to him share it with you, it feels as if you’ve been given a front-row seat to some of the world’s most gripping theatre, an oral history for the ages.

“When I was a kid I always had two jobs,” Kiefer goes on. “I sold magazines and newspapers; I worked on my lunch break at school and ran elevators in the evenings. We were broke. Everyone was broke in the Depression. But working gave me a chance to swim. I would sneak onto the street cars, if I didn’t have the three cents it cost, and I would ride to the Jewish Community Center, which was the only place open to swim on Sundays. I eventually came across the great swimming coach, Stan Brauninger. He timed me in the backstroke one day and he said, ‘Oh boy, you’re going to be a great swimmer. Stick around kid.’ I broke my first world record when I was 15 years old.”

He pauses for a second. Shifts gears completely.

“You know, President Kennedy was a backstroker,” Kiefer says. “Did you know that?”

I think I’ve heard that before.

“Yep, Harvard boy,” Kiefer says. “I met him one year at the Olympic trials. He was just lounging around with all the swimmers. He was a real quiet guy when I knew him. Swimming saved his life in the war.”

Kiefer’s story, like the stories of many men of his generation, has been largely defined by World War II. It started with the 1936 Games — otherwise known as the “Hitler Games.” At 17, Kiefer was the youngest U.S. Olympian in Berlin. Another great Olympian, considered by some the greatest American Olympian of all time, Jesse Owens, took to showing him around.

“Jesse took me under his wing and introduced me to all the athletes. I carried his bag everywhere,” Kiefer recalls, laughing his throaty laugh. “Jesse and I knew each other quite well. After the war he moved to Chicago. Started a radio show. We went around promoting health and fitness in the inner cities and talked to kids about the Olympics. Good guy. The best.”

Kiefer wasn’t always in the presence of good guys. He’ll never forget, at those Berlin Games, shaking the hand of one of the worst guys the world has ever known.

“When we got to Germany, there were swastikas all over the place. Millions of them,” Kiefer said. “I remember the Germans drove us out to where they were making all their guns. They wanted everyone to know that Germany was big and strong. Anyway, one day Hitler came to the village where we were staying to take some pictures, and I was pretty well known over there because I was breaking records. We got introduced, through an interpreter of course. I’ve always said, I should’ve thrown him in the pool and drowned him. It would’ve saved everyone a lot of trouble.”

Adolph Kiefer stands atop the podium after winning the men's 100-meter backstroke at the Berlin 1936 Olympic Games on Aug. 14, 1936.

Kiefer went on to star in those Berlin Games, winning the gold medal in the 100-meter backstroke while setting three consecutive Olympic records in the first round, semifinal and final. After that, he began touring the world with other great U.S. Olympians, stopping all over Europe, South America and Japan, where he challenged the best swimmers in the world head to head.

“In 1937, five of us went to Japan, which was the swimming nation of the world back then. They won all but one (Olympic) gold medal in 1932, and in 1936 they won all but two. Anyway, they wanted to race me, and they had ‘32 Olympic champion, but I was the only one they couldn’t beat.”

Kiefer’s swimming résumé is historic. No doubt about that. But you have to wonder what more Kiefer could have accomplished had it not been for the war, which called so many great Team USA athletes into duty during the prime of their careers. Another such man was Louis Zamperini, the 5,000-meter distance runner who finished eighth at those same 1936 Games before eventually going into the war with the Air Force in 1941.

Laura Hillenbrand chronicled Zamperini’s incredible story in her book, “Unbroken,” which was adapted for film by Angelina Jolie and will premiere Christmas Day. In 1943, Zamperini’s plane went down some 800 miles south of Oahu in the Pacific Ocean. Zamperini survived nearly 50 days in shark-infested waters before being captured by the Japanese, who then held him prisoner, torturing and starving him for more than two years.

“Louis and I were at the Olympics together in 1936,” Kiefer said. “We ate the same food. Shared the same ideas. Saw what was going on in the world. But I didn’t really get to know him until later. I saw Louis at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, and we had a talk there. What a nice man.”

Zamperini’s ability to survive at sea for some 50 days was not something many military men could’ve pulled off, not just for the obvious reasons, but because, according to Kiefer, many military men, even Navy men, didn’t know how to swim. In fact, in 1944, one year after Zamperini’s plane went down, Kiefer became the man charged with, basically, teaching the U.S. Navy to swim. 

“I remember a chief came through and I asked him, ‘Can you swim?’ He said, ‘No.’ I asked another chief, and he said the same thing,” Kiefer explained. “These guys were in the Navy and they didn’t know how to swim. I did my own study on all the shipwrecks in World War II, and it turned out that there were more deaths from drowning than from bullets. It took a while to put the program together, but we got the best instructors and before anyone could go aboard a ship they had to go through our class and learn about safety and survival in the water. We taught a technique that’s known as the Victory Backstroke.”

The technique, and program, worked. More than 50 years later, while Kiefer was at the Athens 2004 Olympic Games, he came across a retired naval officer. Kiefer didn’t know the man. Didn’t recognize him. He’d seen millions of recruits pass through this swimming classes in his time. But they got to talking. Turned out, the man’s ship had gone down in World War II.

“He said to me, ‘The Victory Backstroke saved my life.’”

Kiefer is a humble man. But he rightfully gleams when talking about his program.

“You know Stan Musial, the great ballplayer for the Cardinals? He came through the program and became a great swimmer,” Kiefer said proudly. “We taught him how to get on the ship, how to survive in the water, sharks, everything. He actually gave up teaching baseball to teach swimming. Stan was a buddy of mine.”

Swimming has remained a central part of Kiefer’s life for the past six decades. He’s teamed up with mayors to get swimming pools into the inner cities. He’s worked with Swim Across America, a non-profit organization that raises money for cancer research. 

These days he still owns 10 percent of the company he started, Kiefer and Associates, which provides all things water sports, from equipment to life jackets to adjustable bindings for water skis. He designed the first plastic kickboard. The first nylon swimsuit.

“More than anything, I like to design things that help save lives,” Kiefer said. “The World Health Organization says we lose half a million people every year to drowning. It’s as big a problem as heart attacks. When you teach a child to swim, you give them safety and the pleasure of activity for the rest of their life. I have 14 patents on my products.”

In fact, he’s working on a new one as we speak. A mechanism to make sure the design of a pool is accurate, from length to width to depth, so as to ensure the accuracy and integrity of all records. 

“We’ll be sending the details over to the Olympic committee and to USA Swimming for review very soon,” he said excitedly.

Imagine being 96 years old, and still, every day, looking forward.