The American athlete Adolph Kiefer (1918–2017) won the 100-meter backstroke race at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, Germany. In subsequent years he amassed an impressive record of victories and world records, leading many to consider him the greatest backstroker of all time.
Kiefer was born in Chicago on June 27, 1918. He was the fourth of seven children born to German-born parents; his father, Otto, was a candy maker. His given name would cause some concern a few years later, after the rise of Nazi leader Adolf Hitler in Germany; he adopted the nickname Sonny or Sonny Boy in order to avoid the impression of being a Nazi sympathizer. Meanwhile, Kiefer had his introduction to swimming around age five, when he accidentally fell into a drainage ditch. Not wanting to inhale water, he turned over onto his back and kicked furiously until he reached the edge of the ditch. While his first swimming effort was one of necessity, it left him without any fear of the water. His father later taught him to swim in a more conventional fashion, and on trips to Lake Michigan, the boy was bribed with the promise of an ice cream cone as a reward if he tried to swim. Soon the cone was no longer needed.
Kiefer devised innovations to the classic backstroke very early in his career. He replaced the simple lane-end arm-powered turn with the flip turn that is now universal among backstrokers, and he modified the stroke itself into a configuration now known as the Kiefer backstroke. Josh Saylor of the Arlington (Illinois) Daily Herald described it this way: “In altering his stroke, Kiefer changed from the previously standard windmill backstroke to veering his arm motion in an S shape while propelling it through the water.” When Kiefer was 15, he met University of Michigan swimming coach Tex Robertson, who saw his talent and agreed to be his coach. For three years, Kiefer hitchhiked from Chicago to Ann Arbor for sessions with Robertson.
The same year he met Robertson, Kiefer set his first world record, at 150 yards, and at the University of Michigan pool in 1936 he broke the American record for the 100-yard backstroke. Michigan assistant coach Matt Mann, wondering if the high-schooler's performance was a fluke, challenged him to do it again and he did. Mann then ordered Kiefer to try out for the 1936 U.S. Olympic team, and the teen made the cut. Before the Olympics, he became the first swimmer to achieve a time of less than a minute in the 100-yard race. Having just graduated from high school, he had the time to hitchhike to New York City, there to board the ship bound for the Olympic Games in Berlin, Germany.
In hosting the 1936 Berlin Olympics, German chancellor Adolf Hitler hoped that a string of German wins would demonstrate to the world the superiority of what he called the Aryan race. Introduced to Kiefer, who was tall and blond, Hitler remarked that the young man was a perfect Aryan specimen. Kiefer was honored at the time, but he later reflected (according to Saylor) that “if I knew then what I know now, I would have thrown him into the pool.” Hitler's plan for a string of victories was frustrated by the track & field talents of African-American athlete Jesse Owens, whom Kiefer befriended during the games. In competition, Kiefer took the gold medal in the 100-meter backstroke, swimming outdoors in the rain in a wool swimsuit.
Back in the United States, Kiefer continued his education at the University of Texas, Columbia University, and Northwestern University, although his interests were not academic and he never completed a degree. In 1941, he married Joyce Kainer, whom he met at a Chicago swimming pool. Between the wedding and the reception, he ducked out to appear at a swimming exhibition, earning the $ 35 he needed to fund the couple's honeymoon. Of his four children, sons Jack and Dale became nationally ranked swimmers.
Although the 1944 London Olympics were also canceled, Kiefer competed as a swimmer in national competitions, winning 58 U.S. championships and setting world records 17 times at distances from 100 yards to 1,500 meters. He lost only two races after 1934, won more than 200 consecutive races, and lowered his backstroke time to 56.1 seconds. He also won Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) titles in freestyle swimming and in the individual medley. Most remarkably, he sustained his backstroke world records until the 1950s: his 1936 Olympic record of 1 minute, 5.9 seconds in the 100-meter backstroke stood for 20 years, and his world record at 100 meters of 1:04.8 lasted for 25 years. Quoted in the New York Times, sportswriter Frank DeFord commented that, if it had not been for the war, Kiefer “would be to the backstroke what Pablo Casals was to the cello.”
After the close of World War II, the photogenic Kiefer was approached with proposals to play jungle hero Tarzan in films, but instead he decided to apply the knowledge of swimming equipment he had gained in the U.S. Navy in a new business, Kiefer Swim Products, under the motto “We supply everything but the water.” He received 14 patents for his inventions, which included the now nearly universal kickboard; a turbulence-reducing lane divider that, still in use in swimming competitions, he based on the shape of a candle holder he saw in a restaurant; an all-nylon swimsuit; and various pieces of rescue equipment. Actively operating Kiefer Swim Products with his wife for many years, Kiefer sold the company to an investment firm in 2011.
By the late 20th century, Kiefer came to deplore the professionalization of the Olympics and what he saw as the decline of participation in Olympic competition for the pure love of sport. “The Olympics should be athletes from different countries getting to know each other,” he once noted, according to Matt Schudel in the Washington Post. “There has to be a way to return to a purer form of amateurism, to sports for the sake of promoting fitness and health—not just money.” Active into his 90s, Kiefer remained visible as a fitness advocate and served on several U.S. presidential fitness commissions.
Kiefer was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame in 1965, and he shared his passion with others by operating youth swimming programs in Chicago, near his Wadsworth, Illinois, home. He shared his love of swimming with his wife, and they took trips to scuba dive at shipwreck sites. In his last years, Kiefer developed leg nerve damage that eventually left him in a wheelchair. However, he continued to swim daily at an indoor pool at his home, saying that the water kept him alive. Kiefer died at his Wadsworth home on May 5, 2017, at the age of 98.
Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL), September 15, 2000, Josh Saylor, “A Life Sport 64 Years after Winning Olympic Gold, Swimmer Adolph Kiefer Is Still Going Strong,” p. 1.
New York Times, August 5, 2000, Ira Berkow, “A Swimmer Remembers the Fuhrer,” p. D1; May 6, 2017, Frank Litsky, “Adolph Kiefer, a Gold Medal Backstroker at the 1936 Olympics, Dies at 98,” p. B8.
Times (London, England), May 18, 2017, “Adolph Kiefer; American Swimmer with Matinee Idol Looks Who Won Gold at the Berlin Olympics, Met Hitler and Later Instructed the U.S. Navy,” p. 43.
Washington Post, May 6, 2017, Matt Schudel, “Adolph Kiefer, Olympic Champion Who Taught the Navy to Swim, Dies at 98.”
International Swimming Hall of Fame, http://www.ishof.org/adolph-kiefer-(usa).html (November 14, 2017), “Adolph Kiefer (USA).”
Kiefer Swim Products website, https://www.kiefer.com/our-founder-pages-317.php (November 14, 2017), “Adolph Kiefer Had His First Swimming Experience after a Near-Fatal Fall into a Chicago Drainage Canal.”□