By: Rhoda Miel
May 31, 2017
It's summer, or at least the start of the summer season, in the U.S., which means many of you will be at a pool sometime in the next couple of months.
While you're there, take a look around at how many pieces of equipment, gear and swimming aids are made mostly of plastic. Then consider this: many of those same, reliable, seen-at-every-pool bits and bobs — and especially lifesaving equipment — are the brainchild of one man.
Adolph Kiefer, who died in early May, grew up in the Chicago area, and said he learned how to swim when he fell into a canal, and it was literally a sink-or-swim moment. He was a backstroke specialist who was the first man to swim a 100-yard backstoke (that's two laps of a standard high school size 25-yard pool) in less than 1 minute. He was 16 years old at the time.
When he was 18, he won the gold medal in the 100-meter backstroke for the U.S. at the 1936 Olympic games, and was the oldest living U.S. Olympic champion in any sport when he died at the age of 98.
During World War II, he revamped the U.S. Navy's training program to teach sailors how to survive a shipwreck. His "victory backstroke," was credited with saving thousands of lives of men whose ships were damaged in battle.
In that training, he and his team began using a piece of fiberglass and buoyant plastic to help sailors learn to improve their kick. They called it a kickboard.
In 1946, his new company, Kiefer Associates, began selling the first commercial kickboards using a foamed PVC. He created the soft lifesaving belts now carried by lifeguards at nearly every public pool, using PVC again.
Kiefer developed the first nylon swimsuits and refined swimming goggles to mold them with a soft, pliable plastic — such as thermoplastic elastomer in today's goggles — so they were more comfortable and were a better fit on the face.
He worked with a variety of manufacturers to bring his products to life, including a girdle maker for the first nylon swimsuit, and a Taiwanese mold maker for the goggles — noting at one point the mold maker gave him half off the price of the mold so he could bring his own goggles to market.
"Swimming and business is the same," he said in a video from Kiefer Associates. "They are identical. I wouldn't do anything unless it was for swimming, safety, learn to swim, swimming lessons, swimming teams, championships. I think about going forward, saving lives. We have to do it."
He drew inspiration from the pool, from his own experience and even while out at dinner in a restaurant. In another Kiefer Associates video, Adolph Kiefer talked about how he noticed the way a decorative candle holder allowed a candle's flame to remain steady even in the breeze.
If that worked for a candle, he reasoned, maybe it would also calm the water in a competitive pool.
When he was competing, lane lines were usually marked with a rope. The splash from one lane had nothing to stop it from creating waves across the pool, and swimmers sometimes became entangled in the rope.
Kiefer went to the candle holder's manufacturer near Buffalo, N.Y., and ordered 1,000 feet of the extruded crosslinked polyethylene tube, strung it across and pool and tried it out. It worked just as he suspected it would.
While the lane lines he invented have been updated and improved since then, they still build on Kiefer's initial idea.
I'll admit, that as a swimmer, I've seen Kiefer's name and its seahorse logo many times, but never thought more of it beyond recognizing the brand. Since learning about Adolph Kiefer's story, though, I have a new respect for all those kickboards and goggles and paddles and fins and other items gathered on the pool deck.
So sometime this summer, when you find yourself at the local pool, check out some of the branding on those very familiar bits of equipment. And don't be surprised if you find Kiefer's name.