Constable: '36 Olympic swimming champ still swimming in Wadsworth
His 98th birthday just two weeks away, Adolph Kiefer slowly swings his stiff, worn body out of his wheelchair and lowers himself precariously close to the edge of the swimming pool in his Wadsworth house. Smiling, the old man leans forward as if he is falling, and, with a mighty splash, disappears headfirst under the surface. Kiefer is home.
In the water, his aged limbs and a lifetime of stories flow effortlessly.
"Jesse was my hero," Kiefer says of sprinter Jesse Owens, his fellow gold medal-winning teammate on the U.S. Olympic squad that sent a defiant message to Adolf Hitler during the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. "He was the captain of the team, and I was the youngest member of the Olympic team. Jesse and I were buddies. I carried his bag for him. He watched me swim."
Hitler insisted on meeting Kiefer, the 18-year-old Chicago-born son of German immigrants, who turned in one of the most dominating performances in Olympics history. Kiefer will get around to the story of Adolf meeting Adolph, but first comes that tale of victory.
In the Olympic pool before the 100-meter backstroke, Kiefer began his race routine.
"I would sing in the water. I had to get my rhythm," he remembers. Setting the Olympic record in a race often decided by fractions of a second, Kiefer finished nearly 2 seconds ahead of the next-fastest swimmer. The photograph of his victory shows him standing in the shallow end watching the race for silver.
"I gave it all I had and won," Kiefer says. "I looked over and couldn't see anyone, so I knew I won."
Then he went behind the grandstand and prayed.
The first time Kiefer swam the backstroke, it was to save his life. A boy of 5 or 6, Kiefer fell into a canal near his home in the Albany Park neighborhood on Chicago's Northwest Side. Instinctively, he turned onto his back and started kicking. Swimming became his passion. His parents, Otto and Emma, encouraged him. His father, who died when Kiefer was 12, predicted greatness. His family was Christian, but Kiefer swam at the Jewish Community Center with friends from the neighborhood.
"I used to go to synagogue with them because I could get a free ride," says Kiefer, who grew up during The Great Depression. "The streetcar was 3 cents, and I didn't have 3 cents."
He soon was swimming well enough to land a job at the 1933 World's Fair in Chicago as a lifeguard at the Baby Ruth pool, which featured exhibitions by top swimmers. Kiefer begged Tex Robertson, captain of the University of Michigan swim team, to coach him. Working as an elevator operator at the Lake Shore Athletic Club in Chicago, Kiefer practiced in the pool for hours every day after work.
Seeking to get Robertson's take on his progress, Kiefer hitchhiked to Ann Arbor, Michigan. The young teen's swimming was so impressive, a Michigan coach pulled out a stopwatch. Kiefer swam so fast, the disbelieving coach made him swim another 100 meters. Kiefer bested the world record both times.
By age 16, he was touring Europe as the world's fastest backstroker.
"I swam 29 times in 32 days and broke a world record every time," says Kiefer, who uses one of his world record cups as a flower vase.
With the Olympics of 1940 and 1944 canceled by World War II, Kiefer continued to set records in national and international competitions. In more than 2,000 races in 14 countries, he lost twice, one of which makes him chuckle.
"I lost to Ronald Reagan," says Kiefer, explaining how he brought his water show to Reagan's hometown of Dixon, Illinois, and agreed to race the actor and future president as a publicity stunt to raise awareness for the importance of swimming and physical fitness. "It took forever to let him win."
Paramount Studios wanted Kiefer to follow in Reagan's career, giving the swimmer acting training with the goal of him playing the part of Tarzan. After his first taste of the Hollywood life, though, Kiefer took a plane home. A 1936 graduate of Roosevelt High School, he married Joyce Kainer, who went to a nearby high school.
"I gave a swimming exhibition between the wedding and the reception and earned 35 bucks for the honeymoon," Kiefer says of their 1941 wedding.
His wife appeared in his water shows and helped run his businesses. The couple, who had children Dale, Jack, Kathy and Gail and two dozen grandkids and great-grandchildren, were married 74 years until her death in 2015 at age 95.
"The thrill of my life is my wife. I dream about her all the time," Kiefer says, noting that faith, family and teaching others to swim have been the keys in his life.
"The biggest thing I did in my life was not the gold medal," Kiefer says. "It was going into the Navy and saving lives."
Haunted by the fact that many American sailors and aircrew were dying from drowning instead of bullets, Kiefer persuaded the Navy to put him in charge of teaching swimming.
"We started calling it the Victory Backstroke," says Kiefer, who has heard many stories from people who credit that program with saving their lives. His best swim instructor was the St. Louis Cardinals' star hitter, Stan Musial, who became a friend.
So did Boston Red Sox great Ted Williams, who Kiefer says was a great guy to play tennis with but who once threw a club into the water during one of their golf outings.
Owens, who died in 1980, remained a lifelong friend, and Kiefer still keeps in touch with his daughters.
Working with three presidents on the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports and with the Red Cross, Kiefer launched dozens of lifesaving swimming programs.
"We taught 51,000 children to swim in 1951," Kiefer says, nodding toward a scrapbook filled with photographs of newspaper stories about a local program, praised by Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley, that taught 780 children to swim at one pool in Glen Ellyn.
Kiefer also founded several swimwear, safety and swim-gear companies that produced everything from life vests and Kiefer kickboards to flooring and the lane markers that are still used in Olympic matches.
"I have 14 patents," he says, adding that he'd like to start producing the harness that holds him in place in the water and allows him to continue to do his backstroke in his small pool, where he used to swim daily with his wife.
"We never wore bathing suits," he says, grinning.
Kiefer tells about the 2,400-year-old pottery he pulled from the Aegean Sea, his friendship with mountain climber Sir Edmund Hillary, weekly bridge games in Grayslake, Libertyville and Mundelein, and his pride in his kids' accomplishments.
"Is this interesting? I don't want to bore you," Kiefer says. That brings to mind his meeting with Hitler.
Wanting to meet this teen of German descent who was breaking all the world records, the Nazi chancellor showed up unannounced with an entourage as Kiefer was practicing.
"There is this little guy with a hat. You could see a little hair and a little mustache," Kiefer says, placing his index finger under his nose to depict Hitler's infamous mustache. Speaking through an interpreter as Hitler spoke no English and Kiefer's parents forbade him from learning German, the pair exchanged pleasantries.
"We actually shook hands," Kiefer says, noting that Hitler had a weak handshake and small hands. "If I knew then what I know now, I would have tried to get him, throw him in the pool and drown him so we wouldn't have had all that trouble we had."