100 Years Ago Today: Johnny Weissmuller Makes His Competitive Swimming Debut

August 6, 1921—a pioneer embarks on his journey in the pool at the American Athletic Union Championships. Winning all four of the races he entered, he thinks he might give this swimming thing a try.

Johnny Weissmuller, who would go on to famously portray Tarzan in the 1932 film Tarzan the Ape Man, officially entered the competitive swimming ranks in Duluth, Minnesota at the 1921 AAU Championships.

The local newspaper, The Duluth Herald, got word that Weissmuller was someone to watch entering the competition, but surely no one would expect what he ended up accomplishing during his career.

At those AAU Championships in Duluth, a city that was growing rapidly near the turn of the century due to its Lake Superior shipping connection of lumber and iron ore, Weissmuller would defeat current 100-yard freestyle world record holder Norman Ross head-to-head in a time of 55.2 seconds, and also won the 50-yard event.

In July 1922, Weissmuller became the first swimmer in history to break the one-minute barrier in the 100 freestyle (long course meters), clocking a time of 58.6 seconds in Alameda, California. That broke the previous world record of 1:00.4, held by Duke Kahanamoku, who won five Olympic swimming medals between 1912 and 1924.

Weissmuller, also the first man to break five minutes in the 440-yard freestyle, went on to win three gold medals at the 1924 Olympic Games in Paris in the men’s 100 freestyle, 400 freestyle and the 4×200 free relay, and added a bronze in men’s water polo.

He would win two more Olympic gold medals in 1928 in Amsterdam in the 100 free and 4×200 free relay, and once again was a multi-sport athlete at the Games, competing on the U.S. water polo team that placed seventh.

In total, the swimmer out of the Illinois Athletic Club won 52 U.S. National titles and set 67 world records, and by all indications, never lost a swimming race.

He would go on to a career in film, and became known as the definitive Tarzan, portraying the famous character in 12 different movies from 1932 until 1948.

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Coach Mike 1952
2 years ago

Great starter article about Johnny W. Here is a correction – AAU stands for Amateur Athletic Union, founded in 1888 by James Sullivan (of Sullivan Award fame) & William Buckingham Curtis. It has a checkered history & never to the best of my knowledge ever had the word American in it.

Last edited 2 years ago by Coach Mike 1952
2 years ago


 I think it would be fantastic to see Calab Dressel swim in the style of Johnny and see what he could do — wearing the heavy tank suit, no flip turn, no fancy starting blocks, and head mostly above water. 52?

2 years ago

440 freestyle in under 5 min.

That’s 22 lengths in a 20 yard (YMCA gym pool), averaging under 13.5 seconds a length.

This is with open turns, no goggles, probabaly unnessary cleaning chemicals and pool filtration, and I’m guessing lifting head forward to breath.

Also a two hand touch turn, no streamline, and a heavy suit.

That’s incredible, and the those turns alone make me dizzy.

2 years ago

One of the best ever

2 years ago

My great grandfather swam with him at one point

Toledo Swimmer
2 years ago

I believe you will find he’s the only person to win Olympic Gold Medals in both swimming and water polo

The Weez
Reply to  Toledo Swimmer
2 years ago

That’s true, at least as far as I can recall off the top of my head…though don’t forget Brad Schumacher who was both a medalist on the ’96 olympic team relays* and then a member of the 2000 US Olympic Water Polo Team (finished 6th).
*I thought he made the BOTH the ’96 Olympic Swimming & Water Polo teams (by memory) and then maybe declined the water polo position due to conflicts with swimming? And then in 2000, I don’t think he went to Swimming Trials?

Reply to  Toledo Swimmer
2 years ago

Not quite. He was the only American to win an individual gold and water polo gold in the same Olympics, but we might be splitting hairs at that point (other Americans one gold as part of a relay and water polo and Brits won individual events and water polo gold)

John Jarvis in 1900 won gold in the 1000 and 4000 and gold in water polo
Paul Radmilovich won gold in the 4×200 and water polo in 1908 (he went on to win golds in 1912 and 1920 water polo)
Louis Handley in 1904 – 4×50 relay and water polo golds
Joe Ruddy in the same events as Handley
John Derbyshire won gold on the 1908… Read more »

Last edited 2 years ago by Blackflag82
Reply to  Blackflag82
2 years ago

Nicely done.

Reply to  Toledo Swimmer
2 years ago

I don’t think Weissmuller won a gold medal in water polo. According to wikipedia, he won a bronze medal in the 1924 games. Also according to wikipedia,
In 1927, Weissmuller set a new world record of 51.0 seconds in the 100-yard freestyle, which stood for 17 years. He improved it to 48.5 seconds at Billy Rose World’s Fair Aquacade in 1940, aged 36, but this result was discounted, as he was competing as a professional” and
“Weissmuller saved many peoples’ lives throughout his own life. One very notable instance was in 1927 whilst training for the Chicago Marathon, Johnny saved 11 people from drowning after a boat accident.”

Reply to  DLswim
2 years ago

You’re correct. I was wrong on my history as well. The others I mentioned won gold in both, but J.W. would have actually been one of a larger handful to win medals in both sports.

Reply to  Blackflag82
2 years ago

Tim Shaw is a double silver medalist in swimming and water polo: 2nd in the 400 free in 1976 then runner-up to Yugoslavia on the U.S. water polo team in 1984.

About James Sutherland

James Sutherland

James swam five years at Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ontario, specializing in the 200 free, back and IM. He finished up his collegiate swimming career in 2018, graduating with a bachelor's degree in economics. In 2019 he completed his graduate degree in sports journalism. Prior to going to Laurentian, James swam …

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