Before Johnny Weismuller: How the Illinois Athletic Club Helped Forge the Modern Sport of Swimming and Create Olympians; Essay by Robert Pruter

Illinois Athletic Club swimming team, 1915

The Illinois Athletic Club is best known has the home for the great Johnny Weismuller, the greatest swimmer of the 1920s and later Tarzan in the movies, but the club had built a foundation the previous decade producing world record holders and Olympians and dominating American national team championships.




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Illinois Athletic Club swimming team, 1914

An examination of two photos of Chicago men’s swimming club teams–one representing swimming when it was still evolving into a modern sport, from 1896, and one when it had fully matured as a modern sport, from 1914. The photo from 1914 shows the Illinois Athletic Club national championship team of that year. They are a little more muscular and stockier and a little older compared to the swimmers of today, but notice that they are obviously athletes, with well-honed bodies designed for competition. Aside from the suits that cover the upper torso, some of the swimmers look as though they could be competitor swimmers of this century.

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Chicago Athletic Association swimming team, 1897

Then 1896 photo of the Chicago Athletic Association swim teams shows a quite different looking team–meager upper body muscular development, and an overall soft flabby un-athletic look. Aside from the diaper-like bathing suits their visibly un-athletic look is the most striking aspect of the picture. Why do these photos look so different? What happened between 1896 and 1914 to cause such a noticeable difference? The following account of the emergence of the Illinois Athletic Club and its work to develop swimming into a modern sports competition may assist the reader in answers to these questions.

It was a long twenty-year struggle by the athletic clubs and the local high schools in the city of Chicago to create the modern form of swimming competition and to produce the champion swimmers of 1914. But first a little pre-history. Swimming competition in the United States is traced back to the first championship race held in the New York Athletic Club (NYAC) in 1877; the event was a mile long. The following year the Midwest probably saw its first swimming competition at the first annual regatta of the Mississippi Valley Amateur Rowing Association held in Peoria. It was a race of 100 yards and was conducted as sort of a novelty to close the regatta.

With the formation of the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) in 1888 swimming became organized as a nationally competitive sport, but swimming had a long way to go before it could be said to be a fully modern sport–that is, with record keeping,  national  championships, several levels of organized competition, and universally recognized forms and standards–as well as a clear separation between participants and fans. When you watch swimming competition today keep in mind that every stroke, every technique, and every procedure had to be developed, created, or invented at some point. Illinois, and especially Chicago, played a huge role in the evolution in such swimming developments.

The 1890s decade was the pioneering days for competitive swimming, which saw interest increase dramatically after the first Olympic Games of 1896 with its swimming races. It was a sport of the big city, which could produce a sufficiently large enough and prosperous enough population to sponsor athletic clubs. These clubs were originally built to foster athletic and physical activity among its well-heeled members. Within a few years the concept had evolved where the athletic club would also recruit teams of young athletes to compete under the athletic club’s banner. It was in the recruitment of athletes and the fostering of youth swimming by the big city athletic clubs that would create the world of modern swimming competition, highly evolved from its original conception as a play activity of the upper crust.

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Chicago Athletic Association, youth swimming class, 1909

Swimming is a sport that produces exceptional athletes out of a particular training culture. Improvements in swim competition are largely a process of scientific training and learning, through the development of new techniques and new revolutionary strokes, and most of all by rigorous repetitive drills. The cornerstone of that kind of training culture in Chicago was the athletic club, and competitive swimming as it emerged could come from no other place. Such a place provided a swimming pool, which was a rarity in the 1890s, and a professional coach–even more of a rarity.

Swimming–along with football, track and field, and boxing–was one of the sports sponsored by the Chicago Athletic Association (CAA), which was the city’s principal athletic club in the 1890s. Its first competitive swimming team was formed in 1894, and at first the swimmers all came from the club’s regular membership.

The swimming of the 1890s by CAA athletes would have looked slow and dull by present day standards. The fast-paced crawl stroke, used in the present-day freestyle races had yet to arrive in America and Europe. Long the most common swimming technique was the breaststroke, which involved a froglike kick of the legs and a double sweep of the arms forward and back underwater, and many swimmers were still employing it for long races. During the 1890s it was the basic stroke first taught to all swimmers.1

For short races competitors in the early 1890s traditionally relied on the sidestroke; it involved one overhand stroke into the water and a scissors kick with the legs. But by the mid-1890s, however, a new stroke was sweeping the swimming world, the trudgen stroke, devised by an Englishman, John Trudgen. Like the crawl the swimmer brought the hands alternately over and into the water, except that he used a scissors kick instead of a flutter kick.2

In 1896 the first national AAU championship was held in New York, with athletes largely drawn from Chicago and New York. Chicago’s strong role in amateur swimming was recognized the following year when the city and the CAA were given the honor of serving as hosts for the AAU indoor and outdoor championships. The national outdoor meet, in July, 1897was held in the Lincoln Park Lagoon. The meet organizers included events that would strike competitive swimming fans of today as bizarre. The meet for example featured a tub race, in which swimmers sat in tubs and paddled across the water with their hands, and a “clothes race,” in which each competitor had to wear seven pounds of clothes including hat and shoes.3  But much of the focus of the local swimming meets in the decade was concentrated on the water polo matches, which proved more exciting to audiences than the races.

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National AAU swimming championship at Lincoln Park Lagoon, 1897

The competitive sports of swimming and water polo were especially in their infancy in the colleges and secondary schools in the 1890s, most of which did not have swimming pools. Thus, few educational institutions attempted to organize teams at this time. High schoolers, if they were swimming at all, were participating as representatives of clubs and not their high schools. But the CAA knew that for swimming to grow as a sport it must work to develop interest in it among the younger generation.

In the 1897 national outdoor meet, for example, the club sponsored a 100-yard schoolboy race. In the winter of 1898 the CAA inaugurated its Juniors swimming and water polo squad. In a meet in July of 1898, well after the local high schools had been let out for summer vacation, the CAA Juniors also competed against high school teams in the first race competition that included schoolboys who participated as representatives of their high schools.

The CAA saw the fostering of water polo as a way of developing new strong young swimmers. Reported the CAA’s journal, The Cherry Circle, in 1900: “Since the CAA started an interest in the game of water polo among the schools of the city there has been a rapid development of fast, strong swimmers among the boys of junior years.”4

The CAA, however, by 1900 had reduced their participation in adult amateur swimming as part as a general retrenchment from fostering and sponsoring athletics. Only partially filling the gap left by the CAA was the Central YMCA, which started a strong swimming program involving many young members. With the eminent opening the Olympic Games in St. Louis in 1904, the CAA was aroused again to participate in amateur sports. In early 1904 it formed swimming and water polo teams with the intention of training them for the Olympics. The Central YMCA team under Coach Frank Sullivan also competed. Sullivan, who was one of Chicago’s great innovative coaches, was also a champion in the underwater plunge, a peculiar event of the day in which swimmers would compete to see how far each could coast underwater after a dive. The event was ended by the early 1920s.

The year 1905 saw the emergence of the modern era in American swimming, the use of the crawl stroke. The crawl stroke was developed by an Australian family, the Cavills, consisting of the father Frederick Cavill and six sons. One son, Richard, took the crawl to England in 1902, and was soon setting world records. Another son, Sidney, came to America in 1903 to serve as a swimming instructor at the Olympic Club in San Francisco. One of Sydney Cavill’s prize pupils was J. Scott Leary, and by the following year with the new stroke he was winning every race in sight.

America’s top swimmer of the day, Charles M. Daniels of the NYAC, saw Leary perform and dropped his trudgen stroke in favor of the crawl. He perfected the crawl technique by increasing the number of kicks to each arm stroke, and rapidly regained his preeminence, breaking every record in sight. But the New York dominance would not last.

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H. Jamison Handy

Chicago was developing new young talents in the high schools and the clubs who would soon dominate the swimming world. H. Jamison Handy, born in March 6, 1886, became the first great swimmer produced in Chicago. He did not learn his swimming in his high school, North Division, which ironically was a pioneer in high school swimming. Handy developed his training in the YMCAs, apparently, and as a member of the Central YMCA swim team he won a bronze medal in the breaststroke in the 1904 Olympics. But he was also a world record long-distance freestyler and an innovative backstroker. He was a small fellow, under five foot nine, and weighing only 140 pounds, and had to compete against men well over six feet tall and weighing over 200 pounds. He had to use brains over brawn to compete.

But Handy possessed one of the great analytical minds of the swimming world, and because of that became one of the premier crawl strokers of all time. As a measure of his talent, in November of 1905 Handy competed in a 600-yard freestyle race at the Evanston YMCA pool. He was timed as he completed each length of the 20-yard pool, and at the end of the race he had set thirteen world records. But as extraordinary as this achievement Handy was not satisfied. He was still getting beat in head to head competition against the great Charles Daniels. He set about to change that, as related by Clarence Pinkston of the Detroit Athletic Club:

It was then that Jam used his genius for analysis to figure out a method that would make the current crawl stroke more efficient. At that time the champs breathed by holding their heads up facing straight forward–a few swung their heads back and forth, from side to side. Jam worked [in] secret for six months on his idea of exhaling under water as the head was turned to the side for a breath coordinated with the arm pull. When he faced Daniels for the 1906 National AAU 800 championship, no one anyplace in the world had seen the crawl stroke as we all know it now, and Mr. Daniels saw very little of Jam Handy as he walked away with the championship easily. Within a year every top notch swimmer in the country copied Jam’s revolutionary idea.5

The exhaling underwater technique is so taken for granted today that we forget that a swimmer actually had to invent it, namely H. Jamison Handy. His name is relatively obscure today, which should not be the case according to Pinkston, who said, “it is hard for me to figure out why the biggest contribution to the development of the American crawl has been missed by the many writers on the subject.”6  Handy in his swimming career demonstrated remarkable achievement in three different strokes–crawl, back, and    breast–for which he has justifiably earned recognition from swimming historians. A notable swimming official, Lawrence J. Johnson, remarked on Handy: “During the period of his competition from 1906 through 1909 he was the greatest all-around swimming champion our country had ever known and since that time no swimmer in our country or in any other for that matter has ever attempted or equaled the record in all strokes and distances that Jam Handy left on the championship books.”7

Handy maintained his interest in the world of swimming years after his competitive days and pioneered the use of underwater cameras to analyze swimming strokes. He was elected to both the Helms Foundation Swimming Hall of Fame in California and the International Swimming Hall of Fame in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. He lived to the age of 97, passing away on November 13, 1983.

The high schools entered into the competitive swimming picture in 1906, when the first meets in Chicago solely for secondary schools were held, notably one authorized by the Cook County High School League. In 1908, the Illinois Athletic Club (lAC), well aware that the future of swim competition lay with the youth, inaugurated an annual interscholastic meet.

The work of the Chicago-area high school swimmers in 1908 set off signals in the swimming world that prep swimming had arrived. In a wrap-up of the year in the Chicago Tribune, Frank Sullivan said: “Most notable of all has been the remarkable development of schoolboy swimming that has multiplied by six or eight the total number of America’s registered swimmers and has given us scholastic records equal to the country’s best of a few seasons ago. Swimming always has been a young game. supported best by youthful physique, but never has this point been so well illustrated as by the 16 year wonders of 1908. In every large city, high school leagues have been formed; the Illinois Athletic Club interscholastic has been initiated as an annual feature, and New York has had a schoolboy meet with listed over 200 entries in a single event. “8

With the advent of the crawl stroke and the opening of the Illinois Athletic Club in 1907, the new era of modern swimming was launched in Chicago.  A top swimmer and coach, Frank J. Sullivan was named swimming director and he formed a team of mostly high school age talents, the average age “being well under 17 years.”  Among them were Harry Hebner and William Vosburg. The Inter Ocean story on the new team, noted that “every member uses the crawl stroke for rapid transit through water.”9

The year 1912 proved eventful. when William Bachrach became coach of the lAC team, and in subsequent years was elevated to legendary status as each year lAC swimmers and water polo players took every title and regularly set national and world records. He weighed 350 pounds and with an ever-present cigar and huge beer belly he looked like a German butcher. Reputedly he hated water, because supposedly no one ever saw him in the pool.10

By the second decade of the new century high schools had become almost equal partners with the athletic clubs in sponsoring swim competition. In 1913, when the Cook County League broke up into the Suburban League and the Chicago Public League, both new leagues adopted swimming as a recognized sport. Bachrach particularly hailed the Suburban League, home of swim powers Evanston, New Trier, and Oak Park. Related the Chicago Record-Herald, “Coach Bachrach of the lAC believes the swimming league organized by the suburban high school officials to be the biggest boost the splashing game has been given in a long time. He says that the league will develop some more stars for his team, although at times the ‘dad’ wishes that there was some other club in the city capable of offering strong competition to his family of champions.11

The Intercollegiate Swimming Guide of 1916 contained an illuminating report from one of the pioneer high school swimming coaches, Chauncey A. Hyatt, of New Trier in the north suburb of Wilmette. New Trier was the first high school in the Chicago area to have a pool. Said he:

In the Middle West there has been a steady development of swimming in the secondary schools. Each succeeding year more swimmers have been developing and previous performances bettered. The development is due to several reasons, but probably the most important one is the fact that boards of education are beginning to consider natatoriums just as essential as gymnasiums and nearly every new high school has one included in its plans. Several schools built several years ago have added swimming pools and are recognizing aquatics as part of the high school curriculum.

Hyatt went on to list fourteen schools in Illinois and Indiana that had swimming pools, among them besides New Trier were Maine in Park Ridge, and Senn, Schurz, and Harrison in Chicago.12

A look at three of the lAC’s greatest champions of this period–Harry Hebner, Michael McDermott, and Perry McGillivray–will reveal what a formidable championship team the organization produced during the second decade of the new century. Their achievements demonstrated the tremendous payoff that the swimming coaches of Chicago gained from working with the youth of Chicago. One can also see how the role of high schools in swimming competition grew as one moves from Hebner, McDermott, and McGillivray.

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Harry Hebner

The career of Harry Hebner is instructive of how prior to around 1908 the public high schools were not yet producing swimming talent. He was born June 15, 1891, and by the age of 15, in 1906, he was competing in high school events as a representative of the Central YMCA Junior team. The following year he broke out as one of the top Chicago swimmers, competing for the regular Central YMCA team having never competed for a public high school. In all probability he was attending the Central YMCA high school. He was selected for the inugural IAC team formed in the fall of 1907, when he was just sixteen.

Hebner made his debut on the international swimming stage in 1908 as a 17-year old member of the Olympic team. Four years later, in Sweden, he won a gold medal in the 100-meter backstroke and a silver medal on the 800-meter freestyle relay team. At those games, Hebner proved himself as one of the great swimming revolutionaries with his introduction of the “crawl backstroke.” The first impulse of the officials, who were used to seeing an inverted breaststroke style of backstroke—your basic grandma in the pool stroke—was to declare it illegal. But after some conferring, and finding nothing in the rules to ban it, they allowed Hebner to use it. All competitors soon adopted this new stroke.

From 1910 through 1917, Hebner, swimming for the lAC, held all the world backstroke records and held the AAU national championship in the event for seven consecutive years. In 1914 Hebner broke six individual records in the freestyle and backstroke, and that year was hailed by New York future Hall of Fame coach, Louis de Breda Handley, as “the greatest all-around swimmer in the world.”13

Hebner on the IAC water polo team helped club win national AAU water polo titles from 1914 through 1917, In 1920 Hebner participated in his last Olympics as a member of the water polo team. He was the standard bearer for the U. S. Olympic team in the opening ceremonies. Hebner died in 1968, and he is honored today as a member of the Helms Foundation Swimming Hall of Fame and the International Hall of Fame.

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Michael McDermott

Michael “Turk’ McDermott was born around 35th and Wabash on the South Side of Chicago, January 18, 1893, one of eleven children. McDermott attended two south side secondary schools, first Lake High (later named Tilden Tech) and later a parochial school, DelaSalle Institute, but it was not in high school that he got his swimming background (he only competed in one meet for Lake). Early on his father sent him to a pool at 60st and Cottage Grove, where William Bachrach was an instructor. Later he followed Bachrach to the Central YMCA, then in 1909 joined the CAA.14

In 1913 McDermott jumped to the newly dominant lAC squad, rejoining his old coach, Bachrach. For the remainder of his career McDermott swam for the lAC, setting national and world records at long distance races and the breaststroke. He won the national AAU indoor breaststroke championship nine years in a row, from 1910 to 1918.

McDermott participated in the 1912 Olympics in the breaststroke, but failed to win a medal, which was no surprise since the Europeans traditionally prevailed in the breaststroke over the Americans. In 1916, when McDermott was at the height of his fame and skills, he was deprived of the chance to become a star in the Olympics, as the games were canceled as a result of World War I. McDermott’s greatest fame came in long distance swimming. He won the Missouri Athletic Association 10-mile Mississippi River swim four times, 1911, 1913, 1916, and 1917. He was also a key member of the lAC water polo team, playing on teams that won national titles four years straight, from 1914 to 1917.

McDermott participated in one more Olympics, in 1920, as a member of the water polo team. McDermott died in 1970, after being selected for two hall of fames, the Helms Foundation Swimming Hall of Fame and the International Swimming Hall of Fame.

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Perry McGillivray

Perry McGillivray was one of the outstanding swimmers in the history of the sport, who was a champion as a middle and long distance freestyler, a backstroker, and a water polo player. He was born in Oak Park, Illinois, July 24, 1893, of apparently modest background, judging from the secondary institution he attended, Crane Tech, an all boys public school teaching vocational skills.

In 1908, McGillivray, then a sophomore at Crane Tech, set a national high school record in the 40-yard backstroke with a pioneering “push off” technique (which was soon universally adopted). In his first year as a member of the lAC, in 1910, he won the annual Chicago River marathon, a premier swimming event in the city during that time. He subsequently won it three more times. In 1913, McGillivray originated a technique in swimming that is now taken for granted, the underwater turn. Reported the IAC magazine in a story on a race:

A decided novelty was exhibited by McGillivray in turning. Instead of pushing off on the surface he sank down several feet, then started thrashing with his legs and came up with a great flourish of speed. The result of this turn was obvious in the recent events. McGillivray hung for a second behind his ‘surface-shooting’ rivals on swinging around then came up with a dash and passed them. It was noticeable that he started swimming sooner than the others.15

McGillivray was a member of the silver-medal winning 800-meter freestyle relay team in the 1912 Olympics, but his best years were ahead of him. Had there been an Olympic Games in 1916, McGillivray would have gathered an armful of gold.  He still had enough skills for the 1920 Olympics, where he served on the water polo team, and shared in a gold medal as a member of the world-record breaking 800-freestyle relay team. McGillivray was an innovative water polo player and with Hebner invented the lob shot.

McGillivray was most instrumental in making IAC dominant in the national AAU indoor meet before 1920, winning six freestyle titles and one backstroke titles and assisting IAC in winning six 400-yard freestyle relay titles and four water polo titles.

In 1920, the lAC hailed McGillivray in these glowing terms: “It is no stretch of imagination or exaggeration to state that McGillivray is the greatest swimmer the country has ever known.” Even given the lAC’s own chest-thumping, there would have been strong case for that assessment in early 1920.16 Between 1908 and 1927 McGillivray won 16 AAU individual national titles, was a member of thirteen championship relay teams and seven championship water polo teams. During that time he set nine world records in various events. McGillivray died in 1944, sadly too early to receive the acclaim of being elected to the Helms Foundation Swimming Hall of Fame and the International Swimming Hall of Fame.

The lAC continued to produce champions up through the 1920s, but by the beginning of the decade Bachrach was getting virtually all his Chicago area talent from the local high school programs. There was one peculiar exception. The swimmer was a high school drop-out, who probably never spent more than a year at his school, Lane Tech, and never swam on its championship swim team. He was basically a beach bum, who hung out at the Fullerton Avenue beach. What early formal swimming training he picked up was at the Stanton Park Pool and the Larrabee YMCA.

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Johnny Weismuller and William Bachrach, 1922

A friend from Lane Tech, Hooks Miller, suggested he try his club, the lAC. When the 16-year old recruit stepped into the lAC club house Bachrach saw a raw gangling awkward youth. When he jumped in the pool, Bachrach saw a future world champion. Johnny Weismuller, the world’s greatest swimmer, became Bachrach’s greatest find, ironically just when athletic clubs were beginning to fade as producers of swim talent.

What explains the extraordinary innovation found in Chicago swimming? The city produced exceptional coaches in Frank Sullivan and Bill Bachrach, but also wonderfully inventive swimmers such as H. Jamison Handy, Harry Hebner, and Perry McGillivray. Swimming was such a new sport it had tremendous room for dramatic changes in techniques and strokes, and the hot-house environment of growing competition in Chicago produced the desire of their participants to find that edge that could shave off a few seconds of time.

And then there was the spirit of youth. Chicago worked with its junior swimmers to produce champions, and in the youth one can find the willingness to find some new way that may go against conventional wisdom. So both the swimmers and the coaches were innovating, experimenting, exploring, and working hard. In the big cities of America, and especially Chicago, swimming became a modern sport, the competitive sport we see today.Helps to explain the text


1. Prof. R. D. Rowland, “Hints to Bathers,” The Cherry Circle, Vol. V, No. 14 (December 15, 1898): 12

2.  “The ‘Trudgeon’ Stroke,” The Cherry Circle, Vol. IV, No. 24 (May 15, 1898): 4. “He Swims Like a Fish,” Chicago Tribune, November 17, 1895.

3.  “Swim in Record Time,” Chicago Tribune, July 4, 1897.

4.  The Cherry Circle, Vol. VI, No. 20 (March 15, 1900): 11.

5.  Harold Dash, “Jam Handy–AII-Time Champion,” Tri-Color, March
1960, p 13.

6,   Ibid.

7,  Ibid., p. 14.

8.  Frank J. Sullivan, “Swimming Records Stand,” Chicago Tribune, December 27, 1908.

9.  “Young Stars Form Fast Aquatics Team,” Inter Ocean, December 8, 1907.

10  “Can Bachrach Swim?” Illinois Athletic Club Magazine, Vol. II, No. 7 (December 1912), 27.

11.  Quoted in “Swimming Notes,” Illinois Athletic Club Magazine, Vol. III, No.7 (December 1913): 49.

12.  Chauncey A. Hyatt, “Interscholastic Swimming in the Middle West,
1915-16,” Intercollegiate Swimming Guide, 1916-17 (New York: American Sports Publishing Co., 1916, p. 111.

13.  Harold Dash, :”The Illinois Athletic Club Story,” Tri-Color, November 1964, p. 19; “Harry Hebner–Honor Swimmer” (undated and non-cited page from
International Swimming Hall of Fame).

14.  Harold Dash, “Michael J. McDermott: A True Champion,” Tri-Color, October-November 1970, pp. 8-12.

15. “Crawl Stroke Is Not Favored by Coach Bachrach,” Illinois Athletic Club Magazine, Vol. 11, No. 12 (May 1913): 24.”

16.  Charles R. Dean, “The Greatest Champion of Them All,” Tri-Color, February 1920, p. 17.

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