While working out at the athletes village pool during the 1936 Berlin Olympics, American swimmer Adolph Kiefer was introduced to the infamous dictator who shared his first name.
Kiefer says famed German film director Leni Riefenstahl was taking photos in the Olympic village when Adolf Hitler decided to meet some of the athletes. Because of press attention due to his German ancestry and his first name, Kiefer was among those the Nazi dictator chose to meet. Kiefer was just 18 years old at the time, World War II still was several years away and, the gold medalist says, "You didn't know Hitler was a demagogue and a murderer."
"So I got up and out of the pool," Kiefer recalls. "And there was Hermann Goering and Hitler and a small entourage. There was this little guy, with a little mustache, standing up straight and very militaristic. He was quiet. We had an interpreter and had a few words to say to each other, and we shook hands.
"The biggest mistake of my life was not throwing him in the pool."
Kiefer, 96, competed in the 1936 Olympics with long distance runner Louis Zamperini, who died this past summer. Zamperini's Olympic story and his remarkable survival through World War II is chronicled in Laura Hillenbrand's best-selling book, "Unbroken," and director Angelina Jolie's film adaptation opens this week nationwide.
Zamperini competed in the 5,000-meter run in Berlin, finishing eighth but running the final lap so fast -- 56 seconds -- that Hitler insisted on meeting him and shaking his hand. During World War II, his plane was shot down over the Pacific, but he survived 47 days stranded at sea on a raft and two years of brutal treatment in Japanese prison camps.
"Everyone in the world should read that book," Kiefer says. "It's very well written. Every page is interesting to read. My wife and I play bridge in three different cities, and we get to meet a lot of people. They all talk about Zamperini and about his book. They're all excited about the movie."
"Unbroken" is an outstanding book, and I look forward to the movie. But after speaking over the phone with Kiefer for a half hour this week, I wish someone would make a film about his life, as well.
Kiefer began swimming as a young boy when he accidentally fell into a Chicago canal and saved himself by flipping onto his back and kicking his way to safety. The backstroke became his path to success. He set the world record in the backstroke at age 16 and won the 1936 gold medal at 18 in an Olympic-record time that would not be broken for 20 years. He swam 2,000 races and lost only twice. His career was interrupted by World War II, during which he served as a Navy swim instructor, helping save lives by teaching sailors how to swim the "Victory" backstroke.
After the war, Kiefer earned money in Chicago in water-show competitions with a seal named Jumbo. He started Kiefer & Associates, which developed nylon swimsuits, rescue gear and pool-lane barriers. A strong advocate for youth fitness, he served as an adviser to what is now called the President's Council on Fitness, Sports & Nutrition.
He is one of 10 possible 1936 Olympians still alive, according to the USOC. And he still swims. Every day. He loves the sport so much that the first thing he asked me when I phoned him in Chicago was whether I swam. "Swimming is great," he says. "Everyone should swim."
The Berlin Games were perhaps the most controversial Olympics in history. The IOC awarded the Games to Berlin in 1931 before Hitler came to power. After some of the Nazi regime's anti-Jewish brutality began, there were efforts to boycott the Games by the United States, Canada, England and other countries.
The other city that received votes for the 1936 Olympics bid, Barcelona, would not have been a viable choice either. The Spanish Civil War began the summer of 1936.
"When you look at that time period, it's rife with nationalism, not just in Germany," says USOC archivist Teri Hedgpeth. "There was the Spanish Civil War, Mussolini coming to power, Japan looking for more natural resources. So where do you go? Then throw the Great Depression into the mix."
In the end, the U.S. chose to compete in Berlin, in part because of then-U.S. Olympic leader Avery Brundage, who was accused of racism and anti-Semitism. As Kiefer recalls, there still was some doubt about competing up until the day the team's ship set sail for Germany. He remembers how other nations saluted Hitler as they marched into the stadium during the opening ceremonies, but that the U.S. and British athletes did not.
What is most important about the Olympics, he says, is not the politics of the countries hosting or competing, but that despite those politics, athletes from every continent gather together in peaceful and friendly competition.
As Hedgpeth points out, the legendary Jesse Owens became good friends with German long jumper Luz Long, who aided him in the event. After Owens fouled on his first two attempts, Long told him he didn't need to leap so close to the takeoff board, but to play if safe. Owens did so and wound up winning the gold, after which Long congratulated him while Hitler watched. Long was killed during the war, but Owens tracked down Long's son afterward and later served as the best man at his wedding.
"[The Olympics] are more than a world championship. It's a tradition that goes back to 776 BC," Kiefer said. "They should design it for what it really is. It's a friendship Olympics. It's love and understanding of mankind. ... You get to understand nations and people through sport and health.''