By Ted Kleine

Unless you’re a swimmer, you’ve probably never heard of Adolph Kiefer. But 50 years ago the man the International Swimming Hall of Fame calls “the greatest backstroker ever” was a celebrity of Wheaties-box magnitude. He’d won a gold medal in the 1936 Olympics, when he was only 18. He held every world record in his event. As a navy lieutenant in World War II he designed a training program that saved the lives of hundreds of sailors.

Madison Avenue loved Kiefer. In 1947, when the dangers of smoking were just a gleam in the surgeon general’s eye, Chesterfield chose him as one of seven “kings of sport” for a magazine campaign. Ted Williams and Stan Musial were also in the ad. So were tennis player Bobby Riggs and Chicago Bears quarterback Sid Luckman.

Hollywood loved Kiefer too. Bing Crosby hired him to swim in a water show. Paramount thought it could make him into another Johnny Weismuller, the Olympic swimmer who starred in early Tarzan movies, and right after the war Kiefer, who was handsome, with dark, wavy hair, went to California to read scripts. One day a Paramount executive told him the studio saw him as a “lover”–for $17 a month he could romance starlets on-screen. But Kiefer had a wife and two children. “You see that plane up there?” he said to the producer, pointing at the sky. “Look up there in one hour, ’cause I’m going home. I’ll be waving good-bye.”

Hollywood, barks Kiefer, now 80 years old, “was so artificial, so fake! I was there just long enough to realize it was too much of things I don’t like.” Choosing to step away from his spotlight before it burned out, he flew home to Chicago and started his own sporting-goods company, now headquartered in Zion.

Kiefer’s hair is still black, but only a few limp locks are left. His upper body still has a swimmer’s bulk and strength, but he’s pretty much confined to his chair. He’s lost most of the feeling in his feet to neuropathy, and they flop around when he walks. He wears lace-up braces that allow him to get around the office, but he’s had to quit all sports except the one he loves most: swimming.

Kiefer has been in the water almost every day since he was a boy. “I learned to swim in Lake Michigan–my father took us swimming at Wilson Avenue beach every Sunday after church,” he recalls in his gravelly voice. “I started when I was about nine or ten years old. We enjoyed it because we’d get an ice cream cone on the way home–black walnut ice cream.” He soon became such a fanatic that when his family vacationed at a resort in Michigan he swam all the way across a lake and back, a mile each way.

His father, a German-born candy maker, died when Kiefer was only 12, but before he passed away he told his son that he was going to be “the best swimmer in the world.”

Kiefer worked furiously to achieve the destiny his father had forecast. He swam six days a week in pools near his home in Albany Park, then on Sundays he rode his bike, sneaked onto streetcars, or hopped onto trucks to get to the Jewish Community Center on the near south side, which had the only pool open that day.

“They’d expect me every Sunday until they kicked me out. The reason I became a world’s champion is that I probably swam more than anybody else.”

In high school Kiefer lied about his address so he could go to Roosevelt, which had the best pool. During the 1933 World’s Fair he got a job as a lifeguard at the Baby Ruth pool, which hosted exhibitions by swimming champions. He earned $3 a week but sometimes made extra cash playing a carnival game–sliding out on a greasy pole suspended over the water to grab a dollar bill dangling at the end.

One of the famous athletes appearing at the fair was Tex Robertson, captain of the University of Michigan swim team. Kiefer pestered Robertson until he agreed to be his coach. That Thanksgiving Kiefer hitchhiked to Ann Arbor. “[Michigan coach] Matt Mann would say, ‘Who’s that kid in the pool?’ Tex Robertson said, ‘That’s Adolph Kiefer. I’ve been helping him.’ Mann said, ‘Let’s see that kid swim a hundred.’ So he gets out the watch. He looked at the watch and said, ‘I don’t believe this.’ He said, ‘Do it again.’ So I did it again. He said, ‘You just broke the world’s record.'”

Although swimming historians disagree, Kiefer claims he invented the modern backstroke. He says he never saw the backstroke when he was young but discovered on his own that it was easier to swim on his back than on his stomach and came up with a technique that was much swifter than the classical style coaches were promoting. “I swam differently from the other backstrokers,” he says. “I came up with the idea–not that I knew it–instead of bringing the arm straight back, I’d bring it out to the side, 15 degrees off center.” He tilts backward in his chair and throws his arm up over his head. “Instead of pulling deep, I swam like an oar, like a paddle off to the side, like a shell. My theory was, you’d try to swim high and dry, with less resistance–which they never did before–with your hips up.”

Preston Levi of the International Swimming Hall of Fame says two swimmers were using a high-riding backstroke before Kiefer, but Kiefer was the master of the style. “He was the king,” Levi says. “He just had tremendous power. His strength overcame any technical flaw. His technique was not unique, but he perfected it.”

At the 1936 Olympic trials Kiefer-broke the world record in the 100-meter backstroke three times. He was only a junior in high school when he sailed for the games in Berlin, but he was already recognized as one of the great swimmers of his generation, part of a U.S. swim team so talented even Hitler wanted to meet them. He showed up at a training session with filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl. “He was there with his cronies,” Kiefer says. “He was a little guy with a little mustache, with a hat over his head, and three or four of us shook his hand. Actually what I should have done is throw him in the pool! At my age, which was young, I didn’t realize the atrocities or the problems which were existing then.”

Kiefer swam one event at the Olympics–the 100-meter backstroke. He won it in 1:05.9, demolishing the eight-year-old Olympic record by 2.3 seconds. His mark stood until 1952, when another American swimmer, Yoshinobu Oyakawa, beat it by half a second at the Helsinki games. The record is now 53.86 seconds, but today’s swimmers have sleeker suits and better training facilities. They also have corporate sponsorships that allow them to swim full-time, unlike Kiefer, who worked part-time in the Roosevelt High lunchroom while preparing for the Olympics.

After the Olympics Kiefer toured Europe, China, Japan, the Philippines, and South America, swimming undefeated in backstroke exhibitions. He could have won a scholarship to any university in America, says Jean Henning, widow of Hal Henning, one of Kiefer’s old swimming rivals. But he preferred the life of a traveler and a celebrity. “Adolph was not a college man,” Henning says. “He was more like a Johnny Weismuller. He was just happy-go-lucky. Adolph was always flighty. You could never depend on him.”

World War II changed that. At the beginning of the war swabbies who could barely dog-paddle were sent to sea, and they often drowned when their ships were sunk. Kiefer was so appalled that he persuaded the navy to let him write a manual for training the men to swim. “In the navy the percentage of nonswimmers among the whites was 25 percent,” he says. “Among the blacks it was 90 percent, because they were barred from the pools in those days. The program they had for swimming instructors I thought was terrible, so I told the commanding officer we were losing more lives in World War II because of drowning than because of bullets.”

Kiefer wound up in charge of the navy’s entire swimming program and trained 13,000 instructors. “I wouldn’t let anyone go aboard ship until they had 21 hours of instruction in swimming. They have to have 21 hours even now–and if they’re not, I’ll raise hell!” (The public relations department at the Great Lakes Naval Training Center, boot camp for enlisted sailors, says the navy now requires recruits only to pass a proficiency test.)

But Kiefer’s best-known contribution to swimming came after the war, after he started his sporting-goods company: a tiny garment that changed his sport–and the American standard of modesty–forever. Because of wartime silk shortages, women had begun wearing stockings made of nylon. Kiefer realized the material would make an excellent swimsuit. He went to a company that produced girdles and put in an order for nylon briefs.

The suits were pretty racy for the era. The international swimming authorities had just lifted a rule that required men to wear full-body suits in competition, but a lot of guys were still going to the beach in heavy wool ones. The new “Kiefer suits” were great for swimmers. “It improved everybody’s time,” he says. “It was just another step forward, the same as starting blocks, racing pools, same as the nylon racing lanes–which is also my patent.”

The suits did a lot less for the beaches, but then it wasn’t Kiefer who made his invention the swimwear of choice for overweight German tourists. It was a rival company, Speedo. “We had all the teams in the world using Kiefer suits in the Olympics, including Australia. Speedo started in Australia, and they had all our suits. So they used our patterns originally–true or not true, I’m saying it’s true. They can’t say they didn’t. And then they started up their own swimming-suit business using nylon, same as we did.”

Kiefer doesn’t mind that his name and company logo–a sea horse–aren’t on the hip of every swimmer. His company–whose customers are mainly schools, clubs, and lifeguard operations–sells $500,000 worth of Speedo suits every year. It’s a huge success. It made the lane dividers for the 1996 Olympics; the long plastic chains are still coiled in a pile on the floor of the company’s warehouse. And its rescue cans–buoyant plastic planks that lifeguards place under victims before dragging them to shore–were used on the first few episodes of Baywatch, until another company cut in and signed a product-placement deal.

Kiefer is as monomaniacal and competitive about business as he was about swimming. Many of his stories end with a reference to the fortunes of Adolph Kiefer and Associates. After describing his record-setting swim at the University of Michigan he added, “A fine school. We just lost the biggest job of our career there. They made a terrible mistake.” And when he tells how 30 years ago he donated pools to ghetto parks and fire stations in the wake of the west-side riots, he points out that he didn’t get any contracts as a result. “We gave everything away, and when it came time for bidding for the city and the Park District we didn’t get a damn thing.”

Even at 80, Kiefer says he won’t give up running his business, nor will he give up the sport that has defined his life. Despite the damage to his feet, he still swims every day, strapping on a resistance belt that he says gives him the benefits of a 90-minute workout in half an hour. “I can’t kayak anymore, mountain climb, tennis, play golf,” he says. “I’ve given up any activities of that type. The only thing I have left is swimming.” o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Kiefer photo by Nathan Mandell; Kiefer at the 1936 Olympics photo uncredited.