Two Pandemics and Two Olympic Champion Swimmers

Johnny Weissmuller and Duke Kahanamoku. Two of the greatest swimmers of all time. They raced each other in the 1924 Paris Olympics but that race may not have happened due to two pandemics of the early 20th century.

In 1912 the world was introduced to a very unique person: a native Hawaiian called Duke Kahanamoku. This self taught swimmer won the Olympic 100m Frontcrawl in his own unique style, with the Kahanamoku Kick, later emulated by all swimmers. He set a time in an outdoor race in 1911 that was over four seconds faster than the world record! Kahanamoku never trained in a typical sense, he only surfed using a 100lb Koa-wood hand-made board and worked on the beach as a beach boy. His 100yd time was so much faster than the world record (over four seconds) it was dismissed by the AAU ( … but they did select him for the next year’s Olympics in Stockholm 1912.

After easily winning in 1912, in all likelihood Kahanamoku would have won in 1916 if the Games had not been postponed/cancelled due to WW1. So in 1920 when he repeated his feat it should have been a three-in-a-row! Still unprecedented today.

After his 1912 gold, Kahanamoku became famous and travelled the world in swimming exhibitions for the Red Cross (unpaid at the time to maintain his amateur status). Thousands attended. Duke caught the Spanish flu while staying in a YMCA in 1918 in Washington DC. The Spanish Flu killed 50 million in that era before a vaccine was found. He survived but lost 25lbs during his stay in a Spanish Flu hospital ward.

Another pandemic scourge of that time, that affected children more than adults, was the Polio virus (poliomyelitis). This mysterious virus was caught by a young 9yr old Johnny Weissmuller in 1913. To help him recover his Doctor’s recommendation was to start swimming to strengthen his weakened body.

A polio iron-lung machine not unlike what is used today for those in ITU today with Covid-19

So when these two swimmers met in the 1924 Paris Olympics, between arguably the two greatest swimmers of all time, it was a race between two pandemic survivors.

Duke was an avid surfer his entire life living in Waikiki on Hawaiian island of Oahu.

What if those young swimmers had not survived? We would not have had the 1924 race but more than that. For example: Kahanamoku introduced wave riding (surfing) to the world (so subsequently skateboarding & snowboarding) then later introduced surf boards to be used in lifeguarding. He did this by saving eight people off the coast of California by quickly going in and out to a sinking fishing boat. He also devised lifesaving techniques used even today. Kahanamoku also introduced stand-up boarding that is only becoming popular today. ‘The Duke’ was a great ambassador of the Aloha (greeting and philosophy of love and compassion by all Polynesians) spirit, making Hawai’i a great visitor destination that it is today.

And Johnny Weissmuller? He went on to become Tarzan of Hollywood. Swimming became a sport that generations of young children emulated. His Tarzan call rang through playgrounds after he was on the big screen for years to come.

The world is a strange place now. We may not have seen Weissmuller and Kahanamoku race in 1924. But they survived! The race in 1924 was won by the young Weissmuller (20yrs) against the older Kahanamoku (34yrs). The race between these resilient champions started a hero worship that still promotes swimming of today.

We can beat this virus like great swimmers one hundred years ago. Stay safe!

About Coach Gary

I competed in the 1988 Olympics in Seoul representing Canada and coached in the 2000 and 2004 Olympics for Great Britain. I have a degree in History and a minor degree in Psychology from University of Calgary. I have travelled extensively and have been very lucky to see so much of the world while representing Canada and Great Britain at swimming competitions. I am very proud of the fact that I coached a swimmer to become number one in the world in the fastest swimming race in 2002. I pride myself in my ability to find new and interesting ways to teach swimming. I am an accomplished artist specialising in sculpture, I have another blog called 'swimmingart' where I publish some of my swimming drawings. I have three young children; all boys. I have recently taken up painting and yoga....but not at the same time. You can see my new paintings at:
This entry was posted in General Knowledge on swimming and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Two Pandemics and Two Olympic Champion Swimmers

  1. Pingback: A Barbaric Stroke | swimcoachingblog

  2. Pingback: Stupidity or Sportsmanship | swimcoachingblog

  3. Rick says:

    Great story telling, Gary! I love these types of posts. Swimming has such a rich history.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s