Founder of Salween Group Sylvia Saw McKaige had the honor of interviewing Olympic Gold Medalist and swimming legend Adolph Kiefer on the eve of the 2016 Rio Games. The interview was used for a series of vignettes for the swimming gear company founded in his name after World War 2. Here Sylvia, who herself was once a competitive swimmer at the national level in Singapore, remembers the interview… and the man.
Adolph Kiefer passed away peacefully on May 5, 2017. He would have been 99 years old last week – 27 June, 2017.
Adolph Kiefer was 98 years old when I met him at his home in Chicago in July last year. Before the visit, Kiefer’s President Tom Fuller and Brooke Loren Tarrant had pulled together a huge amount of research on this great man so that I could begin to understand more of his remarkable story; his swimming accolades, his aquatic inventions, his business success and his life-long philanthropic commitment to giving back to the community. Those who knew Adolph Kiefer described him as “larger than life” so I was already in awe before we met.
It was about an hour’s journey from downtown Chicago and during the drive and all the way to the front door, it was still all a bit surreal — “I am about to meet the world’s oldest living Olympic gold medalist,” — Adolph Kiefer – the man who won the gold medal in the 100-meter backstroke event at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, the man who become the first in history to break one minute mark in the 100 yards backstroke.
I knocked, walked through the door, and there he was – Adolph Kiefer sitting in his wheelchair with a huge big grin and all ready for a big hug! The day spent with Adolph Kiefer was one of the most memorable days of my life. I had so many questions for him and he willingly indulged me, happy to share many of his extraordinary stories all told in his uniquely gravelly voice, that I could listen to all day. His memoirs and experiences were captivating in their entertainment but I could also sense the steely determination that was at the very essence of everything he achieved in his long life.
He was fiercely independent; despite the neuropathy in his legs and hands that kept him in a wheelchair, he still managed a daily swim, refusing to give up the ‘blessing’ he deemed the water to be. I couldn’t help but delight in his cheeky sense of humour and I continued to be in awe of this engaging man who certainly deserved his ‘larger than life’ reputation.