Swimming Presidents: Kennedy, Ford, Reagan


This is the third article in a 4-part series on America’s best swimming presidents.

By Phillip Whitten//Guest Blogger

Nearly a century passed after the first swimming president, John Quincy Adams, took his final stroke in the Potomac as president and the next fitness swimmer, Teddy Roosevelt, moved into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.  But in the last 80 years, there has been a deluge of swimming presidents. In fact, at least seven of the 13 American presidents since 1935 could swim and most of these did swim to relieve stress, and, more generally, for fitness and health. 


In chronological order, the Aqua-Fit Seven include Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, and George W. Bush. We can probably add Barack Obama to that list too. Though I’ve never seen photos of him swimming, he body surfs with excellent form, and you simply can’t catch a wave without being able to swim well. 


John F. Kennedy swimming at Harvard. (Medium)John F. Kennedy

Three of the seven come from legitimate competitive swimming backgrounds: Kennedy, Ford and Reagan. Kennedy spent summers at his extended family’s compound on Cape Cod.  Each year, at the end of the summer season, there would be a gala social event featuring water activities such as sailing, rowing, lifesaving and, of course, swimming. John’s father, Joseph Kennedy, the patriarch of the family, took these races quite seriously – especially the swimming. He made it crystal clear that only first-place was acceptable. As far as he was concerned, second and third place were synonymous with losing. The children must have taken this philosophy to heart, for among the exhibits at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library are some first-place medals with JFK’s name engraved on the back. 


Despite his chronic back problems, Jack swam on both the Harvard freshman and varsity teams. As a freshman in 1937, he swam leadoff on the Crimson’s undefeated freshman medley relay team, which ranked first in the Ivy League. He earned his varsity letter in 1940, his senior year, in the annual dual meet against archrival, Yale.
After graduation, he volunteered for the Navy, but was rejected due to his Addison’s disease and bad back. Undeterred, he used his father’s political influence to obtain a commission and was made commander of a patrol torpedo boat, PT – 109.  Operating in the South Pacific near the Solomon Islands, he put his swimming experience to good use. After his boat was sunk by a Japanese destroyer, Kennedy rescued one of his crewmen and carried him for four hours in shark-infested waters, before finally swimming to safety. Lauded as a hero, he was awarded a Purple Heart and Navy and Marine Corps medals.


Wasting no time after the war ended, Kennedy ran for Congress and served three terms before twice running successfully for the Senate. He narrowly defeated Richard Nixon in the 1960 presidential election, becoming the youngest elected U.S. president and the first president born in the 20th century. Through most of his presidency, Jack Kennedy was extraordinarily popular, with his reign compared to that of the mythical King Arthur’s at Camelot.


As president, Kennedy tried to swim every morning to relieve the pain in his back. His favorite pool was the one behind the White House, which his father had built for him as an Inauguration present. In the winter and on days when the weather was not suitable for swimming outdoors, he swam in the much smaller, indoor pool FDR had built in the White House basement.

Gerald Ford swimming breaststroke. (Medium)Gerald Ford

Gerald R. Ford is the only person to have served as both vice president and president of the United States without ever having been elected to either office. He had been a Congressman for 25 years and the House Minority Leader for eight when, in 1973, VP Spiro Agnew was forced to resign after being threatened by prosecutors with charges of corruption, bribery, tax fraud, extortion and conspiracy. The next summer, he ascended to the presidency when President Richard Nixon was forced to resign as a result of the Watergate scandal. Despite being ill-prepared for an office he never sought, Ford seemed to be just what the country needed after the traumatic events of the previous two years. Modest, likable and plainspoken, he represented common sense in a political system seemingly gone mad.


Jerry Ford may very well have been the most athletic president ever to have resided in the White House. Certainly he was among the top three. As a young man, he swam on the Dearborn (Michigan) YMCA swim team, and while a student at the University of Michigan, he was a starter on two NCAA champion Wolverine football teams. As president, Ford swam several days a week.  He was unable to utilize the indoor pool because Nixon had had it torn out and replaced by a bowling alley and an expanded press conference room.  But he did make frequent use of the outdoor pool as well as the one at Camp David.


So it may seem odd that as president, Ford’s image was that of a bumbling, hapless, uncoordinated klutz, a guy who never saw a flight of stairs down which he wouldn’t stumble.  This bizarre public persona was triggered when Ford tripped and fell down the steps of Air Force One while on a diplomatic visit to Austria.  Upon boarding for the return trip, he fell again.


These accidents were all Saturday Night Live comedian, Chevy Chase, needed.  Within a week, Chase was doing his imitation of Ford, which usually ended with Chase/Ford taking a pratful, then looking up at the camera, slightly dazed, and announcing: “Live, from New York, it’s Saturday Night Live.” (You can see many of Chevy Chase’s falls on You Tube.)

Ronald Reagan as a lifeguard. (Medium)Ronald Reagan

Our third finalist is Ronald Wilson Reagan, the USA’s 40th president and, at 69, the oldest person ever elected to the presidency. Reagan had already had several successful careers when he first decided to throw his hat into the political ring. He had been a radio sports announcer, a movie actor, a corporate spokesman and a two-time president of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG).


Ronald Reagan grew up in northern Illinois and was a three-sport standout on both his high school and Eureka College teams in swimming, track and football while also taking major roles in school theatrical productions. In the summers, he worked as a lifeguard, reportedly making 77 rescues in seven years. In addition, he coached swimming for several years, making him the only American president to have been a swim coach and only the second national political figure to have done so.  (Benjamin Franklin was the first.)


Reagan’s first tentative ventures into the treacherous presidential political waters were less than spectacular. He ran, unsuccessfully, for the Republican presidential nomination in 1968 and ‘76. Then he seemed to get the knack of it and was twice elected governor of California. In 1980, he overwhelmed incumbent Jimmy Carter, and was elected president; four years later, he crushed Democrat challenger, Walter Mondale. 


As president, Reagan continued swimming on a regular basis, favoring the White House pool and those at Camp David and his own California ranch.


Unlike most retiring presidents, Ronald Reagan left office a remarkably popular figure. His final approval rating was 68%, a score  equaled only by Franklin Roosevelt and Bill Clinton.