“Americas Greatest Breaststroke Champion” of 1950s Bowen Stassforth Dies at 93

1952 Olympic silver medalist Bowen Stassforth died today at his home in Rancho Palos Verdes, California. He was 93-years old.

Stassforth swam collegiately at the University of Iowa, where he was an 8-time All-American. That included as the breaststroker on Iowa’s 1949 NCAA Championship winning 300 medley relay team.

Stassforth excelled in the period immediately before bifurcation of butterfly and breaststroke, where the arm motion between the strokes was very similar. Stassforth’s coach, David Armbruster, was considered one of the primary innovators in swimming of the time, with his work leading directly to the creation of a 4th stroke, including being credited with developing the name.

That included an American Record swim of 2:34.7 at the 1952 Summer Olympics in Helsinki, where he won a silver medal behind Australian John Davies.

Stassforth was also a 1951 Pan American Games gold medalist in the 300 meter medley relay and a bronze medalist in the 200 breaststroke.  He twice broke the World Record in the 200 yard breaststroke and once did the same in the 100 meter breaststroke, albeit the latter was before FINA recognized the 100 meter breaststroke for World Records.

Charles Roeser, the chairman of the 1952 U.S. Olympic men’s swimming committee, called Stassforth “one of the most cooperative athletes I have ever known in 30 years of teaching and coaching.” Roeser also called him, “America’s greatest breaststroke champion, but more than that, a real American and gentleman whose conduct is a worthy example for others to follow.”

Stassforth retired after the 1952 Olympics. He also joined the US Navy while in high school where at the tail end of World War II where, because of poor vision, he was assigned to teach swimming and water survival skills to enlisted sailors on North Island in San Diego.

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1 year ago

300 medley?

2 Cents
1 year ago

I like these kinds of stories, and would love to see more of them on here. Not the dying part, obviously, but learning more about the history of our sport and recognizing the greats of past again. The last part of the article about his service for the USA was my favorite part… think about how many lives he probably saved by teaching them to swim. Thanks for writing this article, and condolences to the friends and family of the great Mr. Stassforth.

Respect the Past
Reply to  2 Cents
1 year ago

Agreed! “This week in swimming history” or something to that extent. Maybe swimmer spotlight on some of the greats.

Coach Mike 1952
Reply to  Braden Keith
1 year ago

Please try again – I will definitely read it.

Coach Mike 1952
1 year ago

Great to have some more history of pioneering swimmers, especially genteel ones.

IU Swammer
1 year ago

Does anyone have videos of the stroke technique during this transition period? I’m struggling to imagine the middle ground where breast and fly have basically the same arm movement.

Sam Kendricks
Reply to  IU Swammer
1 year ago

I can’t point to a specific video of the middle ground you speak. With that in mind, you should look at some of the vintage race videos from the ISHOF Youtube Channel. https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCwNxs_His3dq19GQNvD5PpA

Here is one to watch. 1961 AAU National 200 Butterfly. https://youtu.be/k4WOls8iGJI

Be sure to watch all the way the finish and don’t skip by the intros. You may see a few famous faces on the deck and in the water. Doc Counsilman, George Haines and other. Mike Troy. And the 100 Free is here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eRsHNfivGRY

We don’t need no stinkin’ caps, goggles, high tech suits, etc. We eat turbulence for breakfast! Tip of the cap to the pioneers!

IU Swammer
Reply to  Sam Kendricks
1 year ago


Coach Mike 1952
Reply to  Sam Kendricks
1 year ago

Thank you Sir Sam! Much appreciated.

Reply to  IU Swammer
1 year ago

I found this video from the 1936 Olympics that shows both variations of the breaststroke at time.


cynthia curran
Reply to  IU Swammer
1 year ago

Masters still allow the fly swam with a breaststroke kick. Novice meets in California in 1969 allow the breast kick in fly. Its still around.

Michael Andrew Wilson
1 year ago

The Eddie Reese Invite was being held in 1949, SwimSwam footage to follow…

pete kennedy
1 year ago

I met Bowen at the 1952 AAU national outdoor championships in Newark, New Jersey thanks to my teammates at the
time Yale New Haven Swim Club’s Jim McLane, Wayne Moore and John Marshall. The headlines in the Newark paper
cited Bowen’s words that “he would make up for his Olympic mistake (not winning the 200 meter event at the Helsinki Olympics).
Yale coach Bob Kiphuth
credited Bowen as an example of his vision that “the older mature athlete could make on the sport of swimming.” Kiphuth cited the
success of American swimmers Norman Ross, Ted Cann, Duke Kahanamoku, and Bowen Stassforth and Weissmuller 100 free swim
of 48.5 while working for Billy Rose’s World’s… Read more »

Eric Stassforth
Reply to  pete kennedy
1 year ago

Thank you Mr. Kennedy for your comments. i never knew dad viewed his Olympic final “as a mistake”. He swam the same time for 220 yards long course in Newark as 200 meters long course in Helsinki which is a distance 3 feet nine inches longer than the Olympic final. By the way, dad almost went to Yale, we have several letters of correspondence with Coach Kiphuth.

Carla Tumanjan
1 year ago

Thank you for writing this on my dad! I’m still learning about him and all what he did. He was a very humble man. Missing him terrible.

About Braden Keith

Braden Keith

Braden Keith is the Editor-in-Chief and a co-founder/co-owner of SwimSwam.com. He first got his feet wet by building The Swimmers' Circle beginning in January 2010, and now comes to SwimSwam to use that experience and help build a new leader in the sport of swimming. Aside from his life on the InterWet, …

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