Johnny Weissmuller (USA)
Honor Swimmer (1965)
FOR THE RECORD: OLYMPIC GAMES: 1924 gold (100m, 400m freestyle; 4x200m freestyle relay), bronze (water polo); 1928 gold (100m freestyle; 4x200m freestyle relay); WORLD RECORDS: 51; U.S. NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIPS: 52; Played Tarzan in 16 movies.
Johnny Weissmuller holds no current world swimming records and by today’s Olympic standards, you might say he never swam very fast, but you can’t get anyone who ever saw him swim say that there ever was a greater swimmer. This was the verdict of 250 sportswriters at A.P.’s mid-century poll and it is still the verdict 15 years later.
He was the swim great of the 1920’s Golden Age of Sports, yet because of the movies and TV, he is as much a part of the scene in the 1960s as he was in the 1920s when his name was coupled with sports immortals such as Babe Ruth, Bill Tilden, Bobby Jones, Jack Dempsey and Red Grange. He is the only one of this group more famous today than in the “Golden Age.”
Weissmuller set many world records and won 5 gold medals in two Olympics (1924 and 1928). He never lost a race in 10 years of amateur swimming in distances from 50 yards to 1/2 mile. Johnny’s 51 seconds 100 yard freestyle record set June 5, 1927, in the University of Michigan Union Pool stood for 17 years until it was broken by Alan Ford at Yale in 1944. The 100 yd. distance is swum more often than any other, yet in 17 years, only one man ever swam it faster. That man was Johnny Weissmuller, who later, as a professional in the Billy Rose World’s Fair Aquacade swam 48.5 at the New York Athletic Club while training Walter Spence to win the nationals. For those who think swimmers must be teenage bobby-soxers, it might be of interest to note that Spence was 35 at the time and Weissmuller was 36.
His record of 52 national championship gold medals should stand forever. He is famous for his chest high crawl stroke seen by millions in Olympic swim stadiums, on movie screens and on TV, but he also held world records in the backstroke and never lost a race in that stroke. “I got bored,” says Johnny, “so I swam on my back where I could spend more time looking around.” Weissmuller set 51 world records in his ten years as an amateur but many more times he broke world records and never turned in the record applications. Every time he swam, the crowd expected a new record, so Johnny learned pace. He learned how to shave his records a tenth of a second at a time. If he missed, his 350 lb. coach Bill Bachrach would say “rest a few minutes, Johnny, and we’ll swim again.” Bachrach would promise his protégé a dinner if he broke the record and Johnny always seemed to be hungry. Many a world mark was set with only a couple of visiting coaches or a few guests of the Illinois Athletic Club to watch.
Every old-timer in swimming has a favorite Johnny Weissmuller story. To them all, he was the world’s greatest swimmer, yet ironically the producer who signed him to play Tarzan didn’t know Johnny could swim. “Many think I turned pro to go into the movies,” Johnny says, “but this is not true. I was working for a bathing suit company for $500 a week for five years, which was not bad money then (or now). I was in Los Angeles and they asked me if I would like to screen test for Tarzan. I told them ‘no thanks’ but they said I could go to the MGM lot and meet Greta Garbo and have lunch with Clark Gable. Any kid would want to do that so I said ‘okay’. I had to climb a tree and then run past the camera carrying a girl. There were 150 actors trying for the part, so after lunch, I took off for Oregon on my next stop for the swim suit outfit. Somebody called me on the phone and said ‘Johnny, you got it.’ ‘Got what?’ ‘You’re Tarzan.’ ‘What happened to those other 150 guys?’ ‘They picked you.'”
“So the producer asked me my name and he said it would never go. ‘We’ll have to shorten it,’ he said. ‘Weissmuller is to long. It will never go on a marquee.’ The director butted in. ‘Don’t you ever read the papers?’ he asked the producer. ‘This guy is the world’s greatest swimmer.’ The producer said he only read the trade papers, but okay, I could keep my name and he told the writers, ‘put a lot of swimming in the movie, because this guy can swim.'”
“So you see why I owe everything to swimming,” Weissmuller says. “It not only made my name, it saved my name. Without swimming, I’d be a nobody. Who ever heard of Jon Weis, marquee or no marquee.”
Besides swimming, Johnny Weissmuller played on two U.S. Olympic water polo teams. “Water polo’s a rough game,” Johnny says. “We never could beat those Yugoslavians. They never blow a whistle over there. Anyhow, that’s where I learned to duck. It came in handy when Cheetah started throwing coconuts.”