By Glyn Marston
It’s funny how easily it is to be taken back to your childhood, a scenario that feels like Déjà vu or a trip down memory lane when on a holiday. For me recently, it was a swim in the sea while on a break in Shanklin on the Isle of Wight. I have hopes of swimming across the Solent in the near future and decided to get a feel for the island. Suddenly memories came flooding back of my childhood holidays and racing my older brother across the beach and into the sea. My brother and I would dive into every wave that we could. As I swam in a less crowded area of the sea, I reminisced about my younger years and my hero at the time – Johnny Weissmuller.
I was around six when I became a fan of the black and white Tarzan movies that featured Weissmuller. Each Saturday morning, I would watch a Tarzan movie before heading off to my local swimming baths with my brother. With five sisters, I was his only brother and he spoiled me rotten: he taught me to ride a bike and he taught me to swim. The highlight of my week was at Walsall gala baths with my brother gently pulling me around the shallow end by my arms as I kicked my legs. Little did I know that this ‘caring big brother act’ was to impress a girl that my brother had a crush on.
Soon after I learned to doggy paddle a width of the pool, my brother taught me to better my technique.
“I will have you swimming just like Johnny,” he joked.
My fascination with Johnny Weissmuller and his Tarzan character continued to grow but with no internet at the time, my research on my hero was very limited. Luckily for me, my English teacher was a keen swimmer and a fan of the Tarzan movies. He gathered information from libraries on my behalf and helped me to begin my research on Johnny Weissmuller.
On August 6, 1921, Weissmuller began his competitive swimming career. He entered four Amateur Athletic Union races and won them all. He set his first 2 world records at the A.A.U. Nationals on September 27, 1921, in the 100m and 150yd events. On July 9, 1922, Weissmuller broke the world record in the 100-meter freestyle, swimming it in 58.6 seconds. He won the title for the same distance at the 1924 Summer Olympics. In all, Weissmuller won five Olympic gold medals and one bronze, 52 United States national championships and set 67 world records. He was the first man to swim the 100m freestyle under one minute and the 440-yard freestyle under five minutes. He never lost a race and retired with an unbeaten amateur record (although there are some who disagree with this claim). It was inevitable that Weissmuller would be the ideal candidate to play Tarzan and though writer Edgar Rice Burroughs was pleased with Weissmuller being chosen to play the role, he was unhappy about MGM’s decision to have Tarzan barely speaking English.
Weissmuller first appeared as Tarzan in Tarzan the Ape Man in 1932 and appeared in twelve Tarzan films before quitting the role to appear in Jungle Jim films. In the Tarzan films, Weissmuller would use the jungle setting as an outdoor gymnasium, climbing trees and swinging on vines, and of course he would swim in the open water.
Weissmuller’s role as Tarzan was enough to encourage a young child like me to don a pair of trunks and swim each week. However, it was his swimming record that inspired a young lad to train harder in the water and have hopes of becoming a champion. Unfortunately, epilepsy played a huge part in having those dreams taken away from me when I was banned from any water activities. Many years later, I became a recreational swimmer and I used indoor swimming as a way of de-stressing, rather than exercising.
It has now been a little over one year since I fell in love with open water swimming and I feel the energy returning to my body each time I swim. As a late starter in open water swimming, I look for inspiration wherever I can find it. And sometimes I return to my childhood aspirations and my brother saying: “I will have you swimming – just like Johnny.”