Legends of the Pool: Johnny Weissmuller

While today’s class of swimmers are breaking records at a clip never before seen, they are not the first swimming superstars. Before there was  Phelps and Lochte, Cielo and Bernard, Coughlin and Hardy, there was a whole slew of swimming innovators that revolutionized the sport. Every week, The Swimmers Circle is going to take a look at one of these Legends of the Pool, and help remember the stars of the past. Click here to see all of our Legends of the Pool.

Johnny Weissmuller (June 2, 1904-January 20, 1984)

Michael Phelps, with little argument, is the biggest swimming star on the planet right now. Now, imagine if Michael Phelps, and not Robert Pattinson, had starred as Edward in the Twilight Saga movies. That’s roughly what Johnny Weissmuller represented in the 1920’s and 1930’s. Oh yeah, and he played water polo.

Let’s break down the stats:

  • 5-Olympic Swimming medals-All gold (3 in 1924, 2 in 1928)
  • 1-Olympic Bronze medal as a member of the USA Water Polo Team
  • 52-US National Championships
  • 51-World-Record Performances
  • 1:00-First swimmer to break the minute barrier in the 100m freestyle
  • 0-Career losses
  • 12-Hit Tarzan films

One of these things is not like the other!

More on that later. We’ll start with his accomplishments in the pool, as they alone are enough to qualify him as a Legend of the Pool.

One of the most famous images of Johnny Weissmuller, taken shortly after becoming the first person to break the minute barrier in the 100m freestyle

One of the most famous images of Johnny Weissmuller, taken shortly after becoming the first person to break the minute barrier in the 100m freestyle

A week ago from today, July 9th, was the 88-year anniversary of Weissmuller breaking one of the most significant barriers in swimming history. He  became the first swimmer to swim the 100-meter freestyle in under a minute. In 1922, at Neptune Beach in Alameda, California, Weissmuller swam a 58.6, to break the old mark held by Kahanamoku. These days, a 58.6 100-meter freestyle makes an average high school swimmer. In 1922, it broke the old record of 1:00.4 by nearly 2 seconds. Consider that Weissmuller swam a 58.6 without blocks or flip-turns.

He broke the mark again in 1924, clocking in at 57.4, a record which stood for exactly 10 years and 13 days, when it was broken by Peter Fick.

In addition to his 51 official World Records, it is believed that Weissmuller broke countless other records, but never turned in the record applications. In 1922, without television cameras and the internet, it’s certainly conceivable that a record-setting swim could go unrecorded.

While his 5 Olympic golds may appear pedestrian compared to today’s gargantuan medal totals, keep in mind that at the 1924 games, 3 was 50% of the possible golds. He probably could have taken a 4th, but he didn’t even swim the 100-meter backstroke, despite having broken several World Records throughout his career in the 100 yard version.

Weissmuller was also recruited to be a part of the 1924 Olympic Water Polo team, which won a bronze medal. He once noted that they “never could beat those Yugoslavians.  They never blow a whistle over there,” a sentiment that some might argue is true of water polo in that region to this day. But I digress.

After the 1928 games, Weissmuller took up a career as a swimsuit model. One thing led to another, and Weissmuller was invited to a casting call to play the part of Tarzan, along with about 150 aspiring actors. He reluctantly accepted the audition, and despite having no real acting experience, and to his own shock, Weissmuller got the part. He went on to  play Tarzan in 12 feature films, and is by far the most recognizable Tarzan of all time. In fact, his signature Tarzan yell was so impressive, that it was still used in remakes of the film as many as 50 years later.

Johnny Weissmuller with his Tarzan co-stars: Cheetah the Chimpanzee, Johnny Sheffield, and Maureen O'Sullivan

Johnny Weissmuller with his Tarzan co-stars: Cheetah the Chimpanzee, Johnny Sheffield, and Maureen O'Sullivan

Although there is much controversy and disagreement about Weissmullers exact personal history, he is widely accepted to have born in Austria-Hungary, in a region that falls into present-day Romania. His family immigrated to the United States shortly after his first birthday, and later in life, Weissmuller was able to obtain American passports that claimed he was born in Pennsylvania, allowing him to compete for the United States.

So he was one of the biggest sports stars in a golden era that hosted Bobby Jones and Babe Ruth. He was one of the biggest movie stars in a golden era that included Clark Gable and Greta Garbo. He was a swimsuit model. Sounds pretty much like  perfect human being.

Not quite. He had Polio. Shortly after the crippling disease saw a United States President (Franklin Roosevelt) begin his term in the White House bound to a wheel chair, a young Johnny was diagnosed with the same disease.  At age 9, a doctor recommended that he take up swimming to combat his condition, and less than a decade later was one of the best athletes in the world. Simply astounding.

Like most swimmers of the time, Weissmuller was not registered for his local neighborhood swim team like kids are today. Rather, he perfected his stroke while lifeguarding at one of Chicago’s Lake Michigan  beaches. His Coach, William Bachrach, discovered him while he was serving as a bellboy at the Illinois Athletic Club: a story reminiscent to that of Adolf Kiefer a decade later. Bachrach, one of the more unlikely coaches in history, weighed in at roughly 350 pounds, but still was able to coach Weissmuller to National titles in the 50 and 220 yard freestyles in August of 1921, less than a year after he began training.

To this day, he is respected as one of the 3 greatest  male swimmers of all time, along with Spitz and Phelps, and  rightfully so. His influence extends even beyond the pool, as he was an ancient predecessor to every modern athlete who tries to extend their brand off of the playing field. His story is simply amazing, and that’s what makes Johnny Weissmuller a Legend of the Pool.

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About Braden Keith

Braden Keith

Braden Keith is the Editor-in-Chief and a co-founder 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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