Lessons From Legends: Bob Kiphuth’s Greatest Show On Earth


By Chuck Warner//Special Correspondent

“Greatest Show on Earth?” Isn’t that the circus? Or what the USA Olympic Trials have moved toward?

USA Swimming’s Chuck Wielgus has helped oversee a spectacular show in Omaha at the last two US Trials. In the 1970s Charlie Keating, financier of the Keating Natatorium in Cincinnati, Ohio, threw silver dollars into the audience to add to the excitement when the Cincinnati Pepsi Marlins hosted a nationals. But if you go back another half century or so, there is Robert John Herman Kiphuth—a remarkable man, and showman, that lived such an amazing life that this column could be devoted to tell his story weekly and go on for many months.

As in any spectacular achievement in the world there tends to be a mix of hard work and some element of luck. While Coach Kiphuth was in charge of the swimming program at Yale University, the school needed a new swimming facility. The family of philanthropist Payne Whitney was in a position to help.

The story that has been passed down for years is that the aging Mrs. Whitney wanted to give Yale a church or cathedral, instead. Yale went ahead and built an enormous gym with a stunning exterior that looked just like a cathedral. Mrs. Whitney was pleased when she was driven by the nearly completed project and saw what looked like a cathedral.

Inside the Payne Whitney Gymnasium Bob Kiphuth had designed the greatest spectator seating pool of the day, and quite possibly still to this day. A six lane 25-yard pool was surrounded by an amphitheater of 2187 individual seats, under a 53-foot ceiling, with an unobstructed view from every seat of the pool. He worked with engineers to create a variety of innovations including cool airflow into the spectator seating area, and warm airflow onto the pool deck to keep the swimmers comfortable.

Kiphuth had been developing something called the “Yale Swimming Carnival” at the school’s old Carnegie Pool, but now he had a venue to put on “The Greatest Swimming Show on Earth.” Over the next thirty years swimming fans from the New Haven, Connecticut area would be treated to music from the Yale Band, their award winning chorale group “Wiffenpoofs,” sections set aside for couples going to the prom, Yale swimmers serving as dolphins and kids as jockeys in races down the pool, beauty contests, ugly duckling contests, local age-group relay races and Kiphuth’s favorites: world records and clown diving.

It has only been over the last 30-40 years or so, that world records have been limited to 50-meter and 25-meter courses. Kiphuth took advantage of the opportunity to break global standards in yards as well as meters and in variety of distances that aren’t recognized today. He widely promoted these record attempts and brought great swimmers from all over the United States to make them. Lionel Spence set the first world record at the Carnival on April 1, 1932 in the 200-meter breaststroke with a time of 2:44.6. Over the next eighteen years the 200-meter breaststroke world record was broken twelve more times --- seven of those swims were at Yale. In the 1943 Carnival alone, seventeen new swimming standards were established!

Clown diving typically brought down the house with laughter and cheers to close each Carnival. Larry Griswold often starred and became so famous that he eventually performed on the Frank Sinatra television show.

The Carnival was sold out every year.

If you are a swimmer, parent or coach what can you do to help promote the sport of swimming. ?


• Be Proud of Your Sport: You can talk with friends and families about viewing key swimming races or good duel meet competitions in person, on-line or on television.


• Assert Yourself: After your competition submit a short article and pictures to your local newspaper, television or media outlets. If you’re a swimmer and get published you can use it on a resume or note it on a college application.


• Be Persistent: It may be that a media outlet will only accept your every third, or fifth or tenth submission. But something is much better than nothing and your efforts can grow in acceptance.

Will your work on publicity take away from your other responsibilities?

While Coach Bob Kiphuth put on the Carnival and traveled the world to promote swimming before air travel was developed, he found time to coach Yale to a 528-12 dual meet record and be named USA Head Olympic Coach five times. In 1948, his USA Men’s team won every Olympic gold medal --- a record that has never been equaledAnd Then They Won Gold (Small).

For more information or to order Chuck Warner’s books Four Champions, One Gold Medal or …And Then They Won Gold, go to www.areteswim.com (access Books * Media), Swimming World Magazine or the American Swimming Coaches Association. You can follow Chuck Warner on twitter@chuckwarner1.

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