Kiphuth, Robert John Herman ("Bob")

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KIPHUTH, Robert John Herman ("Bob")

(b. 17 November 1890 in Tonawanda, New York; d. 7 January 1967 in New Haven, Connecticut), swim coach at Yale University, advocate of physical fitness, and innovator in training techniques who made Yale the dominant powerhouse in American collegiate swimming for forty years and who coached five U.S. Olympic swim teams.

Kiphuth was the eldest of the six children of John Kiphuth, a lumber-mill hand, and Mary Benin, who taught him to fear God and work hard. A member of the Evangelical Church, he neither smoked nor drank throughout his life. As a boy, he became involved in athletics at the YMCA and in 1910, at a stocky five-and-a-half feet, he was hired as its director of physical education. At the "Y," he met Louise DeLaney, of Buffalo, New York, who shared his interest in fitness. In 1914, as a result of her acquaintance with a former Yale official, Kiphuth was offered the position of assistant instructor of physical education at the university and he moved to New Haven. Kiphuth and DeLaney were married on 7 June 1917. They had one son, DeLaney Kiphuth.

In 1917 Kiphuth was asked to oversee the Carnegie Pool at Yale because its superintendent had fallen ill. The next year Kiphuth was appointed swim coach, and he hurriedly learned as much as he could about the sport. Since the Carnegie Pool was too small to accommodate the entire Yale team, he put a group of second-line swimmers through a special set of land exercises that he devised from his knowledge of physical conditioning. The group subsequently excelled in the pool. He turned the experiment into a regular training program of what some dubbed "muscles and mileage"—having his swimmers undertake two months of calisthenics and work with weights and pulleys before they plunged into lengthy workouts in the water. The innovation helped produce a record of competitive success unequalled in collegiate swimming before or since. From 1918 to 1958, when Kiphuth retired, his Yale teams won 528 dual meets and lost only twelve, the last in 1945.

Kiphuth coached the U.S. Olympic Women's Swim Team in 1928 (Amsterdam), and the Men's Swim Team in 1932 (Los Angeles), 1936 (Berlin), 1948 (London), and 1952 (Helsinki). At the London Games, the American swimmers won all eight swimming and diving events, an unprecedented feat. But for Kiphuth, the most thrilling moment in his coaching career came in 1942 against the University of Michigan in its home pool. Michigan was strong, the water seemed rough, and the Yale swimmers were jittery. However, they crushed Michigan 70–16, winning every race while setting either a world's record, an American record, a Michigan record, or a Yale record.

Kiphuth held that a coach should behave like a stern but understanding father, declaring, "The boys of strong character and topflight ability will like him; the shirkers and crybabies will not. This is as it should be." Practicing what he preached, he might yell at laggard swimmers, "If you want to take a bath, get a cake of soap"; or chide even a victorious swimmer after a race for underperforming. But he chastised gently, and on swim-team trips he would chat with the team members, cheering and calming them. He was careful to encourage second-rank swimmers as well as champions, taking as much pride in their improvement as in that of his speedsters.

Even though he was a tough taskmaster, Kiphuth was held in high affection by Yale students, many of whom he knew because the university required that all its graduates know how to swim. It was long rumored that Kiphuth himself could not swim; he put the rumors to rest in 1948 before a large crowd at the fiftieth anniversary of Yale swimming by diving fully clothed into the water and paddling across the pool. In 1946 he was named director of athletics, a post that he relinquished in 1949 after suffering a heart attack and that was then filled by his son, DeLaney. In 1950 he was promoted to full professor of physical education at Yale. A student of physical education since his days at the YMCA, Kiphuth continued to explore training and swimming techniques. He spent many summers between the world wars studying physical education in England, France, Germany, and Japan. An evangelist of swimming and fitness, he published magazine articles and wrote or coauthored several books on both subjects, includingSwimming (with A. S. Barnes, 1942) and Basic Swimming (1950). His How to Be Fit, first published in 1942 for young men headed into the military, was reissued in 1950 in a revised edition addressed to women as well as men. Many men and women today, he wrote, "need to take special care of their bodies and train their muscles in order to overcome the enervating effects of present-day living, the softening that results from riding to school or job instead of walking, from spending hours at sedentary work."

Although formally educated only through high school, Kiphuth was a cultivated man. He audited courses at Yale, read avidly, and developed a range of literary and artistic interests. His absorption with body mechanics made him a devotee of ballet. His suite in Timothy Dwight College, where he was a fellow, contained some 4,000 books, including a number of first or rare editions. Art was the subject of many of the volumes. Oil paintings and water colors adorned the walls, sculptures occupied the niches, and the cabinets housed numerous recordings of classical music.

In 1967 Kiphuth died after watching the Yale swim team beat West Point. He is buried at Evergreen Cemetery in Hartford, Connecticut.

Kiphuth achieved international renown in the world of competitive swimming. His emphasis on conditioning and technique transformed the sport and helped foster an affluent society's emerging devotion to fitness. Swimmers came from around the world to train with him, and in the 1950s and early 1960s, he conducted swimming clinics in a number of countries, including Germany, Iceland, South Africa, Israel, India, Japan, and Mexico. In 1963 he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his role as a "continuing spokesman for physical fitness and development throughout the United States."

The principal sources of information about Kiphuth are a folder of clippings, articles, and press releases in the athletics department of Yale University; and an entry in Current Biography (1957). An obituary is in the New York Times (9 Jan. 1967).

Daniel J. Kevles