When Adolph Kiefer passed away at his home May 5 in Wadsworth, Ill., at age 98, the world of aquatics lost one of its most enduring icons. Among his many accolades: at the time of his death, Kiefer was America’s oldest living Olympic champion.
He rose to fame at age 17 at the 1936 Olympic games in Berlin, known as “the Nazi Olympics,” where he won the gold medal in the 100-meter backstroke. Hitler shook his hand in congratulation, but Kiefer later said that if he had known what Hitler had in store for the rest of the world, “I would have thrown him in the pool. But how do you know?”
Kiefer would continue his winning ways by breaking 23 records, including every backstroke record, according to the U.S. Olympic Committee. Unfortunately, World War II caused the cancellation of both the 1940 and ’44 Olympics, cutting short Kiefer’s career as an Olympian. But the war launched his career in swimming instruction.
It was Kiefer’s work with the Navy in WWII that he would say was his greatest achievement. During the war, many sailors drowned after their ships were attacked and sank. Kiefer helped develop a curriculum for teaching sailors to swim using what became famously known as the “victory backstroke.”
His efforts were widely credited for saving thousands of lives.
After the war, Kiefer established Adolph Kiefer & Associates and began working on several revolutionary innovations that would forever change the sport of swimming. Among those were the world’s first nylon swimsuit, the kickboard, the first turbulence-resistant racing lane and the first soft-molded swim goggle gasket.
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Throughout his career, Kiefer continued to promote swimming and develop new products for the aquatics and swimming pool industries, becoming one of the most well-known swimming and aquatic safety advocates of all time. “He didn’t look back. He was always looking to the next new thing,” says Bruce Wigo, president of the International Swimming Hall of Fame.
Later in life, Kiefer suffered from neuropathy but continued to swim everyday, an activity he credited for helping him still feel “human.” In 1995, Kiefer told the Chicago Tribune, “The feeling of swimming, of being independent, the feeling of relaxing in the water, is the greatest feeling in the world. Everybody should experience it.”