George Breen (USA)
Honor Swimmer (1975)
FOR THE RECORD: OLYMPIC GAMES: 1956 bronze (1500m freestyle); 1960 bronze (1500m freestyle); WORLD RECORDS: 6; U.S. NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIPS: 22.
George Breen trained for his long course 1500 meter World Records in a 20 yard pool. He began swimming at 17. In his first time trial as a freshman at Cortland State, he swam six minutes and 30 seconds for 440 yds. “I was so bad,” says Breen, “that a coach without Doc Counsilman’s patience would have thrown me out of the pool for cluttering-up his workouts.” Breen’s reign as America’s (and sometimes the World’s) greatest distance swimmer is the classic Horatio Alger story of a kid who couldn’t make the football team so he went out for swimming. He started late, came on fast, and became the best. George started swimming at least ten years later than most of today’s champions – about the time most of our current hotshots are dreaming of retirement. Yet he was still swimming, or swimming again, 20 years later as a Masters national Champion. Breen shaved-down for the first time when he was 40. “I quit for a few years,” says Breen, now the University of Pennsylvania Head Swim Coach, “but I feel better when I’m working out.”
Breen’s most impressive effort was his 1500 meter World Record (long course) at the 1956 U.S. AAU Indoor Championship at Yale, a swim which Ohio State Coach Mike Peppe called “the single most brilliant effort in swimming since I’ve been coaching.” Breen not only lowered the World Record by 13.1 seconds, but finished one minute and 18 seconds ahead of Frank Brunell, himself a many-time U.S. National Champion. No one has ever finished so far ahead of the second man in the 75-year history of the U.S. Nationals.
There is irony in Breen’s next greatest swim. It was during the 1956 Olympics and George lowered his New Haven 1500 meter World Record another 13 seconds to a then incredible 17:52.9. The only problem is it was during the preliminaries, and while George Breen had continued to hold the Olympic record, he had also swum his gold medal race too soon. In the finals he finished third behind Olympic Champion Murray Rose of Australia and runner-up Yamonaka of Japan. The winner was six seconds slower than Breen’s record. Breen calls that race which he has re-swum a few thousand times, “my biggest lesson in character building.” Before and after his “character building” experience George Breen helped build character in other swimmers. In 5 years, from 1956 to 1960, he won 22 U.S. National Championships, set 6 World Records and made 2 Olympic Teams, captaining the 1960 U.S. Team which won the title back from the Australians who had won it all in 1956.
Breen’s thrashing-rolling-shoulder-roll and two-beat kick was an important step in the evolution of modern freestyle swimming although so unorthodox that many top coaches of the time remarked after each of his World Records, “wow, if that man could only swim – think, how good he would be!”
There is one more touch of irony to the George Breen era. The other American male swimmer who did well at the Melbourne Olympics was Bill Yorzyk. As with Breen, Yorzyk was a very bad football player who had never been a swimmer before college. Yorzyk went to Springfield just a few miles from Cortland. Both had outstanding and patient young coaches, Doc Counsilman and “Red” Silvia, both were developing new strokes, and both worked harder in their 20 yd. pools than their U.S. competition had ever worked at 25 yds. or 50 meters.
George Breen was put on this earth to keep us all honest. We honor this incredible man as a 1975 Honoree in the International Swimming Hall of Fame.