Higgins still in swim, 56 years after Berlin


ANNAPOLIS -- Pardon John Higgins for using a cane. He has an artificial left knee and five pins in his right ankle. Arthritis plays havoc with the joints.

"I only use the cane to keep from wobbling," Higgins said, "so people won't think I had a five-martini lunch."

Instead, at noon, five days a week, Higgins swims 1,500 to 2,000 meters in Navy's pool. Not a bad workout for a 76-year-old. Indeed, it's only a few meters less than a typical Higgins practice session was in 1936, when he set the world record in the 200-meter breaststroke and went to the Berlin Olympics.

Higgins' Olympic experience included a handshake with Hitler, a fourth-place finish in the 200 breaststroke and an introduction to Jesse Owens, whom he instructed in swimming when they attended Ohio State in the fall. Owens won four gold medals in track at the Berlin Games.

"We trained about a third of what swimmers do now," said Higgins, Navy's swimming coach from 1950-73 and a phys ed professor emeritus since 1983.

"If we did a mile and a half a day, it was strenuous. A lot of my training was in open water on the Narragansett Bay. I'd hang on to a sailboat when I needed to catch my breath."

When he was growing up in Providence, R.I., Higgins swam for the YMCA and then switched to a boys club when its coach offered to drive him to the National AAU championships in New York. The YMCA had raised $10 for his trip, hardly enough for four days in New York, even in the depths of the depression.

Higgins broke his first world record in 1935, in the 400-meter breaststroke at the National AAU championships. At one point he held 10 world records, in breaststroke, individual medley and medley relay events, in yards and meters at varying distances.

"Once I broke a lot of world records all in the same race, for 400 yards, 440 yards, 400 meters, 500 yards and 500 meters," Higgins said. "Officials had watches on us at each of those points in the race."

In those days, men wore full bathing suits covering their chests. Trunks were banned in meets. There were no nylon suits, and Higgins recalls that U.S. swimmers were given silk suits for the Olympics.

It was around that time, in the mid-1930s, that some breaststrokers began using the overarm pull, which led in the 1950s to a separate stroke, known today as the butterfly. They switched back and forth during a race from the overarm stroke to the conventional breaststroke arm pull.

The night before the 200 breaststroke final in Berlin, U.S. coach Bob Kiputh suggested to Higgins that he might have more left at the end if he didn't wear himself out by using the strenuous overarm pull for the first quarter of the race.

In his other ear, Higgins was hearing the words of his boys club coach: "Don't let them change your strokes over there."

Higgins listened to Kiputh -- the national coach had to know more than a boys club coach, didn't he? -- and finished fourth. He was the first American finisher, but four seconds off his world record time of 2:41.1.

"I waited too long to go back to the butterfly overarm pull," Higgins said, "and had too much left at the end."

Introduced to Owens in Berlin by Ohio State swimming coach Mike Peppe, Higgins was surprised to encounter the sprinter in the Buckeyes' pool that fall. Higgins helped pay his way through school by supervising football players and runners sent to the pool by their coaches to loosen muscles.

"Jesse came to warm down after track workouts," Higgins said. "We helped him with his strokes and breathing pattern."

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