Oldest US Olympic Gold Medalist Dies

Adolph Kiefer, the 100-meter backstroke champion at the 1936 Berlin Games who was America’s oldest living Olympic gold medalist in any sport, has died. He was 98.


He died Friday at his home in Wadsworth, Illinois, about 50 miles north of Chicago, according to grandson Robin Kiefer. 


Olympic champion at 17

Kiefer had been hospitalized with pneumonia in recent months. He had neuropathy that kept him confined to a wheelchair later in life, but he continued swimming because he could still stand in the water, Robin Kiefer said.


Kiefer became an Olympic champion as a 17-year-old in an Olympic-record time that stood for 20 years. He was also the first man to break 1 minute in the 100 backstroke, doing so as a high school swimmer in Illinois. He later competed for the University of Texas.


As a child he disliked getting water up his nose, so he swam on his back. 


He went on to start a swimming equipment company in 1947 with his wife, Joyce, that invented several performance and safety products, such as the first nylon swimsuit, which was used by the U.S. Olympic team, and a patent for the first design of the nonturbulent racing lane line. 


“He was the dreamer and she was the one who nailed the dream back down to a foundation that was based in reality,” Robin Kiefer told The Associated Press by phone from Bend, Oregon.


High-tech too much

In recent years, the advent of high-tech body suits rocked the sport and led to numerous world records before they were banned. The suits cost as much as $300.


“He didn’t like the level of technology being applied to what he thought was a pretty pure sport,” Robin Kiefer said. “The prices of the suits he thought were crazy.”


Kiefer’s self-named company was widely recognized as an industry leader, producing lane lines, starting blocks, lifeguard equipment and apparel. Kiefer served as CEO from the company’s founding until he retired in 2011.


“There will never be another like Adolph Kiefer,” said Bruce Wigo, president of the International Swimming Hall of Fame. “Not only was he a great swimmer and businessman, but he was a great human being, husband and father whose memory will live on as a model and inspiration for future generations of swimmers and non-swimmers alike.”


Life-saving training

In 1944, Kiefer enlisted in the Navy when it was losing thousands of lives to drownings. Kiefer was appointed to establish a safety curriculum and train officers how to survive in the water. His “victory backstroke” was credited with helping save thousands of lives in the final years of World War II and later was adopted by the American Red Cross.


“He considers it to be his greatest achievement, hands-down,” Robin Kiefer said.


Robin Kiefer recalled his family’s vacations as a child always involved water, whether it was scuba diving or sailing. He said his grandfather’s four children and their offspring all learned to swim and observe water safety.


Kiefer was inducted into the inaugural class of the International Swimming Hall of Fame in 1965. He served on the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition for three presidents.


He was preceded in death by his wife, who died of cancer in 2015. They were married for 73 years. He is survived by their four children, Dale, Cathy, Jack and Gail; 14 grandchildren and 16 great-grandchildren.

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