The world was gathering, as it does every four years, for the 1936 Olympics when two men, Adolph and Adolf, met beside a pool on the edge of Berlin.
Adolph Kiefer was an 18-year-old from Michigan, destined to save thousands of his fellow Americans with vigorous and precious swim instruction. He would do this saving instead of gathering the big collection of Olympic gold medals that should have been, but never were, his to win.
Adolf Hitler was a 47-year-old German dictator, destined to devastate much of Europe and send millions of his countrymen to their graves. On this day in 1936, Hitler was well on his way to becoming the most despicable human ever to walk our earth.
A few days before Olympic competition, Adolf wanted to meet an ultra-promising teen swimmer named Adolph.
Kiefer was not impressed with the wicked ruler.
“He was a little guy with a little mustache and a little hair coming off his chin,” Kiefer said decades later. “A small man with a small hand, and his handshake wasn’t a firm one.”
A few days later, on a cold, rainy day in Germany, Kiefer won the 100 backstroke in world-record time while wearing a full-body wool suit in the chilly outdoor pool. So much seemed ahead, so many medals, but a World War brought by Hitler canceled the 1940 and 1944 Olympics.
But nothing halted Kiefer’s grand American life, which ended Friday after a magnificent 98-year run. He accomplished so much.
He joined the American struggle in World War II, enlisting in the Navy. He soon discovered more sailors died by drowning than enemy attack, and he developed a 21-hour course in swimming. At the center of the course was an easy-to-learn technique to stay afloat and alive that was required before a sailor stepped on a ship. The Kiefer course was the difference between dying in a faraway body of water or returning home to America to share hugs and kisses with family and friends.
After the war, he became a swimming tycoon, developing the first nylon suits and plastic kickboards along with becoming an innovator in designing pools. He was married for 73 years. He built a deep and lasting friendship with Jesse Owens, the star of the 1936 Games. He became a loud voice for American fitness, arguing for swimming and running while battling against the three-martini lunch.
He was a rarity: A sports hero who doubled as a genuine hero.
He was astoundingly talented and dominating in the pool. He set a world record as a 16-year-old Chicago high school student. He raced 2,000 times in his 1934-46 career, and lost twice. Really. Just twice.
He would have brought this dominance to the two Olympic Games, 1940 and 1944, that never took place because of the war that nearly burned down the planet.
He remained, until his death, a staunch believer in the idealistic possibilities of the Olympics.
“The Olympic Games is not that you win a gold medal,” he explained in 2015 with words only a gold-medal winner could speak. “It’s the chance to compete against the world. It’s a great way to preserve human kindness and understanding of mankind through sport rather than battle.”
On the day Kiefer met Hitler, the American teen had a vague sense of the horror that was overwhelming Germany. The previous summer, Kiefer had toured Germany, swimming before thousands of fans. He estimated 80 percent of the nation supported their dictator.
But he heard a few times from the other 20 percent. They whispered about books being burned and the horrors being inflicted on the Jewish population.
On his boat ride from America to Germany in the summer of 1935, Kiefer danced with a beautiful Jewish-American teen. Why was she traveling to Germany? To rescue her grandparents, she answered. He didn’t ask for more details.
Kiefer was young, and he failed to fully comprehend the incomprehensible wickedness that was Adolf Hitler. Kiefer was hardly alone.
Later, he wished he had understood the full viciousness and danger of Hitler. When Kiefer shook hands with this small man with small hands, they stood a few feet from a swimming pool.
If he had truly understood Hitler, Kiefer said, he would have found a way to drown him.