Swimming Presidents: Teddy, FDR and Truman


This is the second article in a four-part series on America's best swimming presidents.


By Phillip Whitten//Guest Blogger

So John Quincy Adams, the sixth president of the United States, was also our very first swimming president. But he wasn’t much of a trend-setter, definitely not in the same league as a Kim Kardashian. It took almost a full century before a second swimmer would occupy the White House. Among those who succeeded Adams, there was one president who appears to have been built to swim the backstroke. Long, lanky and very strong, Abraham Lincoln was a backstroke coach’s dream, but there does not appear to be any historical evidence to support the notion that Honest Abe took to the water for exercise or relaxation in those pre-competitive swimming days.


Teddy Roosevelt. (Medium)No, the second president to swim for health and fitness – and to support his macho image – was none other than Theodore Roosevelt. Teddy’s image was that of a vigorous outdoorsman. And that he was. What he was not was an outstanding athlete. TR loved to take on any physical challenge old Mother Nature would toss his way. But the president was no jock. As a youngster, he suffered from a severe case of asthma, an affliction that nearly took his life. He never completely outgrew it. 


Apparently, Teddy’s doctor recommended swimming as a treatment for the asthma – a prescription that helps and one that is still used today.  That appears to be when the president-to-be learned to swim.


Though by no means a competitive athlete, Teddy was tough. Very tough.  Put a mountain in his path, and he’d climb it; separate him from his goal with a rushing river, and he would find a way, somehow, to cross it; confront him with soldiers from faraway Europe trying to establish a beachhead in the Western Hemisphere – where Teddy believed they did not belong – and he would quite literally lead the charge against them.  


Wishing to share his unbounded love of the outdoors with future generations, TR established America’s first national parks. For this and for his “can-do” approach to challenges, such as constructing the Panama Canal, Theodore Roosevelt is regarded by most historians as ranking among the 10 greatest American presidents. He may have been merely a mediocre athlete and a mediocre swimmer, but to quote Oscar the Grouch, “that’s good enough for me.” 


Franklin D. Roosevelt. (Medium)Another great American president was Teddy’s first cousin, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who had the first swimming pool built on the White House grounds and who spared no expense in its construction. For FDR, swimming was an absolute necessity. You see, Franklin suffered from the dreaded disease, polio. He and his advisors agreed that were the public to learn that the president was a victim of this paralyzing condition, he would never be reelected. So FDR swam daily, extending his ability to function while serving in the hardest job in the world during the most brutal war in all of human history, and was reelected for a second, third and fourth term.


FDR had three different vice presidents during his 13-year tenure. John Nance Garner, who served from 1933 to 1941 and who quickly became disenchanted with the role, described the vice-presidency as “not worth a bucket of warm spit.” He was succeeded by Henry Wallace (1941 – 1945), followed by the lHarry Truman (Medium)ittle-known Harry S. Truman.  Less than three months after taking office, Truman was thrust into the glare of the international spotlight when FDR passed away. Happily – and to the surprise of many – Truman was up to the task.  In one of the greatest electoral upsets in American history, the little druggist from Independence, Missouri, was awarded a full term, defeating the heavily-favored Thomas E. Dewey in the election of 1948.


Truman enjoyed both swimming and walking for his health. No lover of the cold Potomac waters, Truman reserved most of his swimming for his not-infrequent vacation trips to the warmer waters of Key West Florida.