Before becoming Hollywood's most enduring Tarzan, Johnny Weissmuller was the first swimmer to go 440 yards freestyle in under five minutes. It was his 47th record, and he still had many exciting years ahead of him.
This record was broken 93 years ago this week, in New Haven, Conn. Weissmuller, swimming for the Illinois Athletic Club, touched the wall in just 4:57, braking his own record of 5:08. Those who witnessed this record-breaking swim said that he did it with ease and only appeared to exert himself at the end.
Johnny was born on June 2, 1904, as Johann Peter Weißmüller in either present-day Serbia or present-day Romania. Seven months later, he arrived at Ellis Island with his parents, Peter and Elizabeth. The German family spent a few years in a Pennsylvania coal mining town before relocating to Chicago.
At age nine, Johnny was diagnosed with polio. This unfortunate event would soon turn fortunate: His doctor recommended that he take up swimming to help with the disease. Johnny heeded his advice and soon enough landed himself a place on a YMCA swim team.
After dropping out of a college-preparatory high school, he found various jobs, one as a Lake Michigan beach lifeguard. While working as a bellboy at an athletic club, he garnered the attention of William Bachrach, a swim coach who decided to train him. In August 1921, Weissmuller became a national champion in the 50 and 220-yard distances.
To compete on the U.S. Olympic swim team, Johnny needed a U.S. passport. He listed his birthplace as Tanneryville, Pennsylvania and used his younger brother's birthday. (Oddly enough, his father’s signing of the passport would be the last time anyone heard from him; in the 1930 census, his mother was listed as a widow, with his father nowhere to be found.)
Johnny excelled as a swimmer. In total, he earned five Olympic gold medals, won 52 U.S. national championships, and set 67 world records. He was also the first man to complete the 100-meter freestyle in less than a minute.
Weissmuller never lost a race, retiring from his swimming career with an unbroken amateur record. The Associated Press declared Johnny the best swimmer of the first half of the 20th century.
After his accomplished swimming career, Johnny moved to Bel Air and commissioned architect Paul Williams to design his luxurious home, complete with a 300-foot serpentine pool that winds around the home. This pool still exists to this day.
In 1929, Weissmuller began his new career as a representative and model for BVD swimwear. He began making appearances at swim shows, promoting BVD, and signing autographs. That same year, he started his Hollywood career with a cameo in Glorifying the American Girl.
He went on to star in MGM’s Tarzan the Ape Man in 1932. His performance in the title role made Weissmuller an overnight hit. He starred in several more Tarzan movies and, later, in Jungle Jim.
Other highlights of the swimmer-turned-star’s life included amateur golfing and five marriages with three children. In the 1950s, he started his own swimming pool company. In 1965, Weissmuller retired in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
Johnny suffered a broken leg and hip in 1974, which began his decline in health. Three years later, he learned that he had a heart condition. In 1984, he died in Mexico, where he was buried at the Valley of the Light Cemetery. Per his request, the Tarzan yell that he had invented was played three times as his coffin was placed down into his grave.