Before Foxcatcher: The story of the Swimming Hall of Fame and the John du Pont not depicted in FOXCATCHER, the movie

© Bruce Wigo, President/CEO of the International Swimming Hall of Fame

Foxcatcher, the movie, has been called a true-­crime psycho-drama about wealth, patriotism, class, manipulation and the murder of Olympic wrestler Dave Schultz by millionaire John E. du Pont. It has won acclaim at film festivals around the world and so has a magnificent ensemble cast of Steve Carell, Channing Tatum, Mark Ruffalo and Vanessa Redgrave. By all reviews it is a dark, disturbing story with a tragic ending that Rotten Tomatoes scores 86/100.

Johnny Weissmuller, Buck Dawson and John E. du Pont in 1967, when du Pont was Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the International Swimming Hall of Fame. The Hall of Fame Museum, in Fort Lauderdale, can be seen under construction in the background.

Johnny Weissmuller, Buck Dawson and John E. du Pont in 1967, when du Pont was Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the International Swimming Hall of Fame. The Hall of Fame Museum, in Fort Lauderdale, can be seen under construction in the background.

I was interested in seeing the movie because the real John du Pont portrayed by Steve Carell in the film, is the same John du Pont who served as the first Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the International Swimming Hall of Fame. I never met John du Pont, but I wanted to find out more about him and his relationship to swimming before seeing the movie. What I learned from the coaches and swimmers who knew him best was that, before he fell victim to mental illness and killed Dave Schultz, John du Pont was a much more interesting, humorous, complex and tragic figure than the character in the film who How ard Stern describes as a “creepy psycho” that makes you “want to hate him.”

“The Carell character in the movie is not the man I knew,” said coach Frank Keefe, who walked out of the film before it ended in disgust. “The John du Pont I knew was my friend, a patriot and a hero. He was a man with great ideas and unlike most of us, he had the resources to turn his ideas into actions that helped a lot of people.”

Stanford Coach Jim Gaughran, remembers du Pont as “a friend who was generous to a fault.“

John Leonard, Executive Director of the American Swimming Coaches Association called him “a national treasure.”

“Behind this terrible tragedy,” says Coach Jack Simon, “was a man who believed in people and did much to assist their success.”

Coach Richard Shoulberg says “I loved the man! John wasn’t the nut depicted in the movie, he was mentally ill. He needed help and didn’t get it. That’s the tragedy.”

Heir to the DuPont Chemical fortune, John Eleuthère du Pont was born into a family of almost unimaginable wealth. His parents divorced when he was two and he grew up on Liseter Hall Farm, an 800- acre estate outside of Philadelphia. Growing up he had few friends and devoted himself to fishing and collecting specimens of birds, seashells and stamps. He became an expert in all three fields under the tutelage of some of the world’s leading experts who were hired by his father. His social interactions were primarily with his mother and the servants. He swam for the Haverford School and in college at the University of Miami (FLA) and had aspirations of making the 1964 Olympic swimming team. Following his formula for success in his other interests, he bought an estate in Atherton, California, in 1963, so he could train under the world’s best swim coach, George Haines.

“I think he was someone without much selfesteem, and he was desperate to fit into something, to prove himself,” said Olympic great Donna de Varona, a member of Santa Clara’s Swim team. “But he worked hard, was never late for practices and ultimately, he earned some respect and affection from the people around him. I think that was the happiest he ever was,” she said.

“He was different,” remembers Hall of Famer, Steve Clark, “but he kind of fit in.”

Screen Shot 2014-12-23 at 6.08.04 PMThe first time 1960 Olympic backstroke champion and Santa Clara swimmer Lynne Burke met du Pont was when her younger brother brought him home after practice one day. Within a few weeks he had become a fixture in the Burke household.

“It was a little odd at first, because here was John coming home with a boy, my younger brother, who was ten years younger than he was,” says Lynne. “I don’t think John ever had friends before and he found a friend in my younger brother. John was a bit socially awkward. He giggled a lot and had a bit of a speech impediment. One time my mother made him a birthday cake and we had a little party for him. He was in his mid-­twenties and had never had a birthday party before. He seemed to be amazed by ordinary people and was shocked that people liked him. I have a lot of happy memories about him from those days.”

John du Pont would later recall in his book, Off the Mat, that the sense of joy, camaraderie, family and accomplishment he found training with the Santa Clara Swim Club changed the direction of his life.

In coach George Haines and Lynne’s father Bob, he found the father figures he had never had known. In the champions he swam with he saw all that was right with America. They were “Citizen – Athletes” who would go to good colleges and become doctors, lawyers and stalwarts of their community. In time he came to see it as his responsibility to help young athletes become champions, both in competition and in life.

When it became clear to Lynne’s father Bob and Coach Haines that John wasn’t going to make it as an Olympic swimmer, they sat down with him and suggested that he pursue his Olympic dream in the sport of pentathlon. They told him this was HIS event! He already knew how to swim, ride horses, run and shoot, he just had to learn how to fence. He wasn’t a natural athlete, but unlike the depiction in the movie, he was a decent athlete and better than average swimmer. Wealth, of course, was another advantage, as there were o