KIEFER [Adolph Gustav]. Natation. (Chicago, 27 juin 1918-5 mai 2017). États-Unis. Entraîné par son père, qui avait enseigné la natation dans l’armée allemande, dans les eaux glacées du lac Michigan, il était encore un gamin quand il trouva un travail de liftier d’ascenseur au Lake Shore Athletic Club, où on lui permettait de nager en-dehors de ses heures de service. Armé d’un physique élancé et léger, d’une technique de nage sur le dos aiguisée et d’une belle discipline de travail, il fut champion olympique du 100 mètres dos en 1936 ; sa supériorité était telle que son temps, 1’5’’9, resta record olympique jusqu’en 1952 et qu’aucun de ses records mondiaux ne fut battu avant 1950. Il améliora 17 records du monde en dos, des 100 yards au 400 mètres, au cours d’une carrière qui s’étendit de 1935 à 1944, et qui le vit remporter 2000 courses, pour seulement deux défaites. Sur 100 mètres dos, ses temps furent 1’7’’, 1’6’’2, 1’4’’9 (1935), 1’4’’8 (1936). Sur 200 mètres dos, 2’24’’ (1935), 2’23’’ (1941), 2’19’’3 (1944). Ses autres grandes performances furent 56’’8 au 100 yards (1944), 1’30’’4 au 150 yards (1941) et 5’10’’9 au 400 mètres (1941). Il enleva dix-huit titres américains. Il était entraîné par Stan Brauninger, qui excluait tout travail au sol pour ses nageurs – « pour nager comme un poisson, vous devez vous entraîner comme un poisson », disait-il – le faisait nager pendant de longues minutes sur place, dans un harnais attaché par un élastique.

Pendant la guerre du Pacifique, ses études sur les naufrages de navires de guerre américains amenèrent le commandement militaire à le charger de l’enseignement de la natation à l’ensemble de la Navy et à imposer des gilets de sauvetages en fibres de plastique en lieu et place du bois de kapok qui était utilisé. Il refusa plusieurs propositions d’enseigner la natation, notamment à ale, et créa son entreprise, Adolf Kiefer and associates, en 1947 à Chicago. Il mit au point les premiers skis nautiques d’Amérique, travailla avec Jacques Cousteau à la fabrication de matériel de plongée. Il se lança dans la diffusion de matériels de piscine et d’enseignement de la natation, révolutionna la construction des piscines et le système de filtrage de l’eau. Il diffusa les lignes d’eau anti-turbulences qui portent même son nom jusqu’à la Wave Eater de 1987, et, en 1948, des maillots de bain légers en nylon à la place de la laine et du coton.

The End Of An Era,
Remembering Adolph Kiefer  
June 27, 1918  – May 5, 2016 
Wadsworth, Illinois, Friday May 5. – Adolph Gustav Kiefer died at 6:00 o’clock this morning at his home in Wadsworth, Illinois. The great swimmer, lifesaver, innovator and entrepreneur whose passion for swimming was an inspiration to all who met him, was 98 years and 11 months old. At the time of his death he was
the world’s oldest living Olympic gold medalist.
In recent years, the greatest all-round swimmer of his generation was afflicted by neuropathy (nerve damage that causes weakness, numbness, and pain) in his legs and hands that kept him in a wheelchair, except during his daily swims, where he was able to walk again in chest deep water. The water, he said, is what kept him alive, even after the loss of his beloved wife, mother of his four children, business partner and best friend, Joyce, to cancer in May of 2015. They had been married for 73 years. With the support of his incredible family, he emerged from grief and resumed his weekly bridge games and social life. In spite of his incredible life, he never dwelled on the past, but was always thinking about new ways to end drowning and promote swimming. In recent months, he had been hospitalized with pneumonia and longed to be reunited with his beloved wife. He was an incredible man and his passing is truly the end of an era – as the last of the immortals from the first golden age of American swimming that included Duke Kahanamoku,

Johnny Weissmuller, Buster Crabbe, Adolph Kiefer at 
ISHOF in 1965

Johnny Weissmuller, Gertrude Ederle, Eleanor Holm, Buster Crabbe and Esther Williams.

As a child he hated getting water up his nose; so, he swam on his back. 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! »
A few months later, while swimming in the Illinois High School Championship meet. Kiefer made it official, becoming
the first in history to break one minute mark in the 100 yds backstroke. After the meet, his coach, Stanley Brauninger, of the Lake Shore Athletic Club, predicted that the six foot, 165 pound youth would put most of the world’s backstroke records beyond reach of his competitors by the end of the year. His prediction proved right. As a rookie member of the USA National Team at a meet in Breslau, Germany, on November 10, 1935, Adolph smashed the world record for the 100m backstroke with a time of 1:04.9.
Adolph winning the gold medal in the 100m backstroke at the 1936 Berlin OG
The listed world record was 1:08.2. One year later, he broke the world record three more times on his way to winning the gold medal in the 100m backstroke at the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games. It was one of only two events won by an American male swimmers that year.
When Kiefer was ready for college after the Berlin Olympic Games, he chose the University of Texas, where Tex Robertson was the coach.
Leading up to the 1940 Olympic Games, as a college student at the University of Texas, Kiefer compiled one of the most impressive records in sporting history, winning National Championships not only in the backstroke, but in freestyle and individual medley races as well. Some of his records lasted 15 years or more. Kiefer’s aquatic achievements earned him an audition for the movie role of Tarzan and answered the siren call of Hollywood, he got married and heeded the call of Uncle Sam and signed up for the U.S. Navy.
Because of his background as an athlete, he was commissioned directly as a Chief Petty Officer and assigned to Norfolk, Virginia, for « the Tunney fish program, » nicknamed so for Gene Tunney, a former Navy man and heavyweight boxing Champion of the world. The program was aimed at fast recruitment of athletes to form a cadre of physical training instructors who would whip thousands of Navy recruits into condition as quickly as possible.
Once in Norfolk, Kiefer discovered something odd about the Navy. He found that many of the officers and enlisted men he worked with couldn’t swim. Norfolk was also where the survivors of merchant and naval ships torpedoed off the east coast by the Nazis, were brought and he was bothered by the stories they told. He started researching the matter on his own time at night and read a report on Pearl Harbor that said seventy-seven percent of all lives lost were due to drowning. The idea that most men in the navy couldn’t swim well enough to save their lives bothered him. He couldn’t sleep at night because he knew the navy was not training recruits properly to save themselves in the water.
He knew a Captain at the Naval Training Headquarters in Washington, D.C. and on his own, hopped on a train to tell him his concerns. A few days later the captain called, he arranged for Kiefer to meet with an Admiral. The Admiral listened attentively, but showed no emotion and asked no questions. Finally, he said, « I’ve heard enough. Why don’t you take lunch and come back in two hours. » Kiefer didn’t know what to think. Because he so critical of the Navy, he even wondered if he might be court martialed for going over the head of his suppers at Norfolk?
When Kiefer returned, the Admiral was all smiles. He said he’d like to know more about what the navy needed to do to protects its men. « When you get back to the base, go see the Commandant and he’ll give you all the assistance you need to write up a program. »

When he got back to Norfolk, he was relieved from teaching, given an office, a yeoman and secretary with a typewriter and devoted himself to reading every life saving manual and report on sinking and shipwrecks he could find. One thing he discovered while he had been instructing sailors to swim was that Fear and Poor Breathing methods were the main reasons why people couldn’t swim. He thought back to his first experience in the water, when he was playing near a canal in Chicago and fell in. He survived by turning over on his back and somehow got to shore. It was not something he had been taught, but whether it was serendipitous or instinctive, that simple movement saved his life – and changed it forever. From that moment on, he felt comfortable and relaxed in the water, he said, because he could breathe naturally and didn’t have his face and eyes in the water and could see. This was the genesis of a new program he called « The « Victory Backstroke. »

Armed with the « Victory Backstroke, » he outlined an intensive learn-to-swim and water survival program that required sailors to receive 21 hours of aquatic survival training. He was then transferred to the new Physical Instructor’s School in Bainbridge, Maryland and oversaw the recruitment and training of over 13,000 naval swimming instructors, including seven « colored squads, » of which there were 70% non-swimmers, yet qualified 100%. These instructors in turn taught over 2 million recruits how to swim and survive a sinking.
One of the many great swimmers Kiefer recruited to the instructors program was Julian « Tex » Robertson, who had mentored him while still in high school and who was his coach at Texas.
Now Kiefer was in charge and once Robertson passed the instructors course, Kiefer sent him to San Diego. After a year, Tex felt guilty about staying in the states and requested an assignment to the front lines. But Naval command had a different mission for him. His persona, training style and techniques had caught the eye of his superiors. He was promoted to Chief Petty Officer and reassigned to train members of an elite special forces unit being formed in Fort Pierce, Florida. Another instructor Kiefer had recruited and who had been selected for Fort Pierce was Tom Haynie, who swam with Robertson at Michigan. Instead of teaching raw recruits the « Victory Backstroke » they were now preparing experienced swimmers for the first Underwater Demolition Team « Frogmen » – known as UDTs – the forerunners of the Navy Seals.Tex and Haynie continued to train the swimmers, but the trainees were also trained in explosives and special warfare tactics and to accompany them on training missions in the most extreme and dangerous conditions imaginable. By the time the trainees graduated as Frogmen, they were some of the toughest commandos in the world, and would play a pivotal role in reconnoitering and clearing obstacles in advance of the invasion of Normandy.
Tex Robertson left the Navy after the war and returned to Austin, Texas where he continued to coach and establish an extremely successful summer camp. Since 1946, over 75,000 children have attended Camp Longhorn, including George W. Bush.

Adolph with Harold Henning

After Tom Haynie became a very successful swim coach at Stanford University.
Another Kiefer instructor was Harold Henning, who later became a dentist and successful swim coach at North Central College in Illinois. He also rose to the position of President of FINA, the international governing body for the aquatic sports in the Olympics and was the founding father of the International Swimming Hall of Fame.

In addition to his duties as officer in charge of the US Navy’s aquatic warfare training program, Ensign Kiefer was also the coach and star swimmer for the Bainbridge Naval Training Base’s swim team. It was at the AAU Nationals in 1943 that one of the longest winning streaks in all of sports came to an end when he was defeated by Michigan’s Harry Holiday in the 150 yard backstroke. The loss closed out a reign that began back in 1935, through 22 national championships that included over 250 wins.
But he came back in 1944 and 45 to break more records and was the high point winner at the 1945 AAU Championships. One of the young sailors he discovered and trained at Bainbridge was Wally Ris, who would go on to win the 100m freestyle at the 1948 Olympic Games.
After establishing his program at Bainbridege, Kiefer turned his attention to the Navy’s lifesaving devices: rings, buoys and lifejackets. It was this experience that led him to establish Adolph Kiefer & Associates in Chicago, when he returned to civilian life. It was a company that would focus on swimming, « making everything but the water. »
Kiefer’s first successful product was the « Kiefer » suit. The silk shortage from WWII caused Kiefer to consider using nylon fabric for suits as the full body competitive suit requirement had just been lifted. Adolph offered a viable option to the wool suits still worn by many beach-goers. The « Kiefer » suits were great for swimmers, improved everyone’s time, no matter how risqué for the era.
His next great product was the wave eating lane line. Kiefer got the idea for the

product from Yale’s legendary coach, Bob Kiphuth, who was looking for something that would reduce the waves at Payne Whitney Gymnasium’s pool. Up to this time, lane lines were made of rope with a cork ball spaced every three feet. Kiefer put his mind to work. He noticed the plastic mesh bags that were typically used for packing citrus fruits. He used the mesh idea to create a hard plastic mesh cylinder that became the first commercial wave eating lane line. 

In 1951 he co-authored a book targeting parents, « Teach your Children to Swim. » based on his experience in the navy and from teaching his own children to swim.
Kiefer also was one of the first to distribute and make popular Duraflex Diving Boards for his friend Ray Rude. Duraflex is now the only competitive diving board used world-wide.
Over the years, Adolph Kiefer & Co. has been an official supplier to both the USA Olympic Team and the Olympic Games. He has donated his time and money to efforts helping youngsters learn to swim – even supplying pools in impoverished neighborhoods. Into his early 90s Adolph Kiefer maintained an ambitious schedule of lecturing and promoting the benefits of swimming around the world.
Adolph is survived by his four children, Dale, Jack, Kathy and Gail, 14 grandchildren and 16 great grandchildren.
« There will never be another like Adolph Kiefer, » says Bruce Wigo, President of the International Swimming Hall of Fame. « Not only was he a great swimmer and businessman, but he was a great human being, husband and father whose memory will live on as a model and inspiration for future generations of swimmers and non-swimmers alike. »
The family has not made any arrangements for a celebration of Adolph’s life at this time. 

Also published on Medium.



    Si on se replace dans le contexte de l’époque, 1935, le 200 Dos en 2’24 » est remarquable. quand je pense qu’aujourd’hui on parle de combinaisons en eau libre dans l’eau à 18°… Je m’évanouis…

    1. Eric Lahmy *

      Ce que vous dites n’est pas faux. On se demande parfois ce que certains champions du passé feraient aujourd’hui. Peut-être pas grand’ chose. Mais il n’est pas sûr que les champions d’aujourd’hui auraient encaissé les conditions de pratique de la belle époque. Quand Amaury Leveaux se plaint (dans son bouquin) d’une eau à 26°, j’imagine qu’il aurait eu du mal. Philippe Hellard me signalait récemment que nombre de piscines australiennes, sinon la plupart, ne sont pas chauffées aujourd’hui encore. Deux époques pour un même sport… en fait presque deux sports différents !

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