Adolph Kiefer was about to do the backstroke.
Which promised a memorable moment for the awe-struck lap swimmer who was watching.
It was Kiefer's backstroke that launched him to glory in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, where he won the gold in the 100 meters.
He performs a different sort of backstroke now, of course.
Kiefer, who turns 96 Friday, stood in his small indoor pool, a bicycle inner tube around his waist. It was tied to a rope attached to the side of the pool — a homemade resistance device invented by a friend. Kiefer, who holds of 14 patents on swim equipment, is thinking of bringing it to market.
He lay back and stroked and kicked, swimming against the pull of the rope.
"Oh, this is heaven," he said. "How could you be without this?"
Kiefer has neuropathy in his legs and hands; his wheelchair was parked next to the pool in the rambling home where he and his wife, Joyce, live in Wadsworth, just south of the Wisconsin border
But every morning he spends an hour exercising and swimming in the pool, reveling in the freedom of movement (and the freedom from a swimsuit; he swims au naturel, except when visitors are calling).
This visitor was in full fan mode. I was agog at meeting the man whose name I've been looking at through years of swimming with Kiefer kickboards.
The International Swimming Hall of Fame lists his accomplishments: world records in every backstroke event; U.S. national records in every backstroke event and the 3-stroke individual medley.
"Adolph Kiefer was the first man in the world to swim 100 yards backstroke (in) under 1 minute," his entry reads. "His backstroke records stood for 15 years, which is why swimming people universally acclaim him the greatest backstroker ever."
For all his swim accomplishments, it is his work teaching people to swim that he considers most important.
He ran the Navy's swim instruction program in World War II, and spent decades running swimming programs for Chicago-area children.
He is grieved at the recent spate of drownings in the Chicago area.
"That shouldn't happen," he said.
A gregarious man with a prodigious memory, Kiefer settled in to talk about his life in swimming, which is woven through Chicago.
"I learned to swim in a Chicago drainage ditch," he said. He grew up in Albany Park, and one day he fell into a drainage canal along the North Branch of the Chicago River.
"I didn't know how to swim," Kiefer said. "But I floated on my back and kicked my feet."
He thought he had invented a new way of swimming. A junior high school swim coach burst his bubble: It was the backstroke.
Kiefer learned to genuinely swim at the Wilson Avenue YMCA. He was a student at Roosevelt High School when he broke the one-minute mark in the 100-yard backstroke.
He set 17 world records, some of which stood for 25 years. He invented a flip turn for the backstroke that is still used today. And when he had just turned 18, he went to the Olympic Games, the ones presided over by Adolf Hitler — Kiefer is quick to point out the difference in the first-name spellings — and the Nazis.
At the Games, Kiefer became buddies with track star Jesse Owens, who won four gold medals, a friendship that lasted for years.
He also met Hitler.
The Nazi leader came to the pool one day with several other officials. "(Hermann) Goering was with him," Kiefer said.
Kiefer got out of the pool and shook Hitler's hand. They exchanged small talk through an interpreter.
"I should have thrown him in the pool and drowned him," he said. "It would have saved a lot of lives."
Kiefer swam so fast in his race that a photo of the finish shows him looking back from the wall at swimmers still half the pool's length away.
When he joined the Navy he was shocked to learn that many sailors and senior officers didn't know how to swim. Kiefer was put in charge of teaching them, and designed a training program that taught 2 million recruits what he called the Victory Backstroke — a basic stroke with arms starting in an overhead "V."
He founded his company, Adolph Kiefer and Associates, in 1947 and went on an inventing tear, coming up with the first plastic kickboard, the first nylon swimsuit and the first turbulence-reducing lane lines.
And he continued his mission of teaching people how to swim.
As volunteer head of health and safety for the American Red Cross of Greater Chicago for 25 years, he coordinated the national Learn-to-Swim campaign here, overseeing lessons for children in Chicago Park District and public high school pools. More than 50,000 children participated in 1951 alone.
As we spoke, the stories of his adventures poured out, from his friendship with Sir Edmund Hillary, a fellow member of a sports advisory group for Sears, Roebuck & Co., to the scuba diving trips he and his wife took to historic shipwrecks around the world.
The memorabilia were there too. Joyce powered her wheelchair to a closet where big books held her husband's world record awards, his Olympic Village passport and telegrams sent to him at the Games in envelopes bearing a swastika.
Kiefer is a great-grandfather now. He sold Adolph Kiefer and Associates in 2011. He and Joyce have been married 72 years — she is adept at muscling her way into the conversation with a firm, "I'm telling my story now" — and they play bridge three days a week.
He still cares deeply about swim safety and fitness. Drowning is a major cause of death around the world, Kiefer says, and he thinks students here should once again be required to know how to swim in order to graduate from high school. He also wants the President's Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition, on which he served under three presidents, to return to giving children annual fitness tests.
And he still loves to swim.
"Swimming in the water is a world all in itself," he said. "It kept me alive."
Kiefer's morning swim was finished, but his quest to get everyone into the water, safely, continues. I left still in awed-fan mode, his stories in my head and his autograph on my kickboard.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times