The history of Yale sports is one of record breaking.
The longest winning streak in NCAA history belongs to the Trinity men’s squash team with 252 straight wins. Yale recently ended that streak, but the Bulldogs also have their own historic streak. In fact, Yale men’s swimming and diving claims the second longest winning streak in NCAA history. For 16 years, from 1945 to 1961, through 201 consecutive dual meets, the Bulldogs were untouchable.
“It was an improbable string of victories, made possible by the charisma and inspiration of a larger-than-life individual, [Robert Kiphuth],” said Robert Giegengack ’60 in an email to the News. Kiphuth was the head coach of men’s swimming and diving for 42 years from 1917 to 1959, and Giegengack was a member of the team from 1956-1960. Under Kiphuth, Yale won 528 out of 540 meets and four NCAA championships in 1942, 1944, 1951 and 1953.
During the team’s undefeated streak, Giegengack said swimming and diving popularity boomed at Yale. Signs on campus read: “Heel Yale Swimming, Yale’s most successful sport!” 125 swimmers showed up to join the team in 1956. Students packed into the natatorium to watch meets. During a tense Harvard-Yale dual meet in 1960, the standing room only crowd erupted in a spontaneous rendition of “Bulldog” when the Elis scored the winning points.
“The Harvard guys, I’m sure, will never forget that day,” Giegengack added.
As Yale swam into the history books, most of the members of the team regarded it as routine. “I remember a lot of press coverage at the time,” said Giegengack, “which struck us all as something of a mystery…”
During these glory years, the swimming and diving team was a hotbed for Olympic and world class athletes. Jimmy McLane ’53 won two gold medals in the 1948 Olympics at age 17 and won another gold in the 1952 Olympics. In 1956 Rex Aubrey ’58 set the world record for the 100 yard freestyle in Payne Whitney’s Kiphuth Exhibition Pool. Aubrey also represented his home country of Australia in the 1952 Olympics. John Marshall ’53, another Australian, broke 28 world records in his career and swam in the 1948, 1952 and 1956 Olympics. When Marshall came to Yale he was the fastest middle distance swimmer in the world, said Foster de Jesus, ’60, the 1956-’57 freshman captain, in an email to the News.
Giegengack said the team’s success was made possible by Kiphuth, who also coached five Olympic teams and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Lyndon B. Johnson in 1963.
Jeffery Farrell GRD ’63, a member of the 1960 Olympic team whom Kiphuth coached in preparation for the Olympic Trials, said Kiphuth’s success was in part due to his innovative training style. He was one of the first coaches to use dry-land training, a practice that has since been adopted by most swim programs across the country. He also introduced a physical fitness requirement to the Yale curriculum. Throughout the 1960s, one could not graduate from Yale without doing 20 pushups, 20 situps, five pull-ups and swimming 100 yards. Kiphuth and his assistants watched freshmen trying to meet those requirements and recruited potential swimmers, Giegengack said.
Kiphuth also distinguished himself with his personality.
“He was unlike any coach I’ve ever met because he was an intellectual,” Farrell said.
After getting to know Kiphuth outside of the pool, Farrell described him as, “a very sauvé, interesting professor type.”
This intellectual curiosity may have helped Farrell swim in the Olympic Trials. Farrell, the fastest 100-yard freestyler in the world at the time of 1960 Olympic trials, had an emergency appendectomy six days before the trials. Kiphuth, who, according to Farrell, knew human anatomy so well he would sometimes quiz medical students, visited the hospital before the surgery. He told the surgeon how to make the incision to maximize Farrell’s chances of a quick recovery. Farrell is unsure if Kiphuth actually swayed the surgeon’s decision. The only thing he knows with certainty is six days later he competed in the Olympic Trials, and, in 1960, he represented the United States at the Olympic games.
Yale’s win streak came to an end in 1961, two years after Kiphuth retired, during a dual meet against Navy.
“The guys on the 1961 team were very upset by that very close defeat,” Giegengack said. “It took us a long time to persuade those on that team whom we knew that they didn’t owe the rest of us anything, beyond doing their best, which they certainly did.”
As for Kiphuth, he “took it like a man,” according to a letter sent to Farrell from John Benet, who had dinner with Kiphuth the night of the defeat. Benet was more bothered by the loss than Kiphuth. Kiphuth on the other hand, “didn’t dwell on it too much,” Farrell said.
This year, the men’s swimming and diving team, although not quite at 201 consecutive wins, has already restarted the tradition. The Bulldogs are currently undefeated with a record of 5-0.