This happened a couple of months ago, but I just became aware of it and wanted to share a great personal story of triumph and service. Adolph Kiefer won the 100-meter backstroke gold medal at the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games and until his death on May 5, 2017, he was the United States’ oldest living Olympic gold medalist in any sport. He was 98 when he passed away at his home in Wadsworth, Ill., a small town about 50 miles north of Chicago.
While backstroke was his claim to fame as an Olympian and then as a survival technique, it was not something that a young Adolph was destined for – actually far from it. As a young child, he disliked putting his face in the water as he would get water up his nose. As a result, he started to swim backstroke so he can keep his face out of the water! His first experience with swimming also came by accident – he had fallen into a Chicago drainage canal as a young child and almost died in the frigid waters. That inspired him to learn how to swim and eventually chart his destiny.
As a 16 year old high school swimmer in Illinois, Kiefer apparently was the first man to ever break the 1 minute mark in the 100 yard backstroke – another feat that lasted almost 15 years- before going on to complete his college career as swimming powerhouse University of Texas. Kiefer was only 17 years old when he won his medal in record time. That Olympic record stood for almost 20 years – which is almost unheard of by today’s standards. The Berlin Olympics was a turbulent Olympics as Hilter was coming to power in Germany and triggered many of the racial and anti-Semitic controversies that received more attention.
During World War II, Kiefer enlisted in the Navy. There, he was charged with developing a safety curriculum to help reduce the number of Navy drownings and train fellow sailors how to survive in the water. At the time, many officers themselves did not know how to swim and the Navy was actually losing more sailors to drownings than bullets! The “victory backstroke” he taught to Navy personnel during the war because the basis for the American Red Cross’s water safety protocol later on and is also still in use today.
In 1947, Keifer started a swimming equipment company, now Kiefer Swim Products (www.kiefer.com), that invented several performance improvement and safety products – including producing the first nylon swimsuit used by the U.S. Olympic tea. He also invented and earned the first patent for a non-turbulent racing lane line – similar to what you see today. Before that, it was just a rope with boppers on it. His company was widely recognized as a swimming and lifeguard equipment leader and produces such items as racing lane lines, starting blocks, lifeguard equipment and apparel, performance training equipment and much more.
Kiefer served as CEO from the company's founding until he retired in 2011. He and his wife Joyce were married for 73 years, until her death in 2015, after a bout with cancer. Kiefer is survived by four children. A memorial fund was started in his honor in partnership with the YMCA of the USA. This fund was created to provide swimming opportunities to others, particularly from disadvantaged backgrounds, and recognize outstanding athletes through an award presented at the YMCA’s National Championships each spring.
To donate to the fund or to find out more about the program, click here