BRIDGEPORT, Pa. — Few individuals remember the name George Kistler – the former miner who served as head coach of the University of Pennsylvania men’s swimming and water polo teams for 31 years during the later years of the 19th century and the opening sprint of the 20th century – and fewer recall his role in founding intercollegiate water polo and swimming in the United States.
Born on February 21, 1864 in Penzance, on England’s West Coast, his father was a clock maker, known for introducing the cuckoo clock and other German novelty timepieces into England. Swimming came naturally to Kistler as he began swimming competitively at the age of 10. Before he became famous for swimming, for 17 years he was well known for playing soccer and rugby on the Cornwall County Soccer and Rugby teams.
While living in England and working in his father’s shop, Kistler reached the high point of his competitive swimming career in 1887, when he won the mile championship of the World Race at the Jubilee of Queen Victoria in 1877. Shortly after, in 1891, he traveled to the United States in hopes of becoming a swimming instructor. Having trouble finding such an opportunity he was forced to work as miner in Summit Hill, Pennsylvania, for four years. During that time, around 1894, he married Susan Rowe; they would have a son named George Hobart Kistler.
Sometime in 1897 a group of Penn alumni discovered Kistler’s residence in the U.S. and approached him with a proposition. The promoters of the National Swimming Association (NSA) saw him swim and learned his background. The NSA was building the Wayne Natatorium in a suburb of Philadelphia. When completed it wold be the largest concrete swimming pool in the world, measuring 500 ft long by 100 ft. wide. It had a fine clubhouse with changing rooms for ladies and when the “Nat” opened in July of 1895, a large crowd of amateur swimmers, representing the NSA, the Philadelphia Swimming Association, the New York Athletic Club, the University of Pennsylvania and a number of other organizations were present.
Two years later, Penn opened its pool in the basement of Houston Hall, a building designed as a recreational center for students. Where students could find relief from the rigors of study. In addition to the swimming pool, there was a bowling alley, pool tables and exercise rooms. A university building dedicated to play was a revolutionary concept for academic institutions at the time. With the building of the pool, the University also made it mandatory that students know how to swim, and to teach swimming it hired Kistler as America’s first collegiate swimming instructor.
On April 5, 1897, Penn announced that the Houston Club had hired the former world champion swimmer and instructor to take on the responsibilities as overall director of the Houston Hall Pool. Kistler successfully developed both swimming and water polo teams, but his first responsibilities at Penn involved the swimming exhibitions held in Houston Hall to showcase various aquatic activities.
On the occasion of Ladies Day at the university, on February 21, 1897 he organized the first swim meet in the pool that measured just 10 feet in width by 30 feet in length. The meet included exhibitions by Kistler of the strokes used at the time: the breaststroke, side-stroke, Trudgeon and over-arm side stroke, relay races and a water polo game pitting students at Penn against members of the NSA. On April 24, 1897, Kistler organized the first Intercollegiate meet following the University’s Athletic Carnival on Franklin Field, featuring his Penn swimmers against swimmers from the New York Athletic Club who attended Columbia University. Further, the members of the Houston Club faced off against the NSA in a water polo match, claiming victory in every event.
The next year (1898), Kistler joined forces with James Sullivan (President of the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) and namesake of the Sullivan Award presented to the top amateur athlete in America) to organize the first “National” collegiate championship as part of the AAU Championships at the Sportsmen’s Show, in Boston, in March of 1898.
Like the modern-day Olympic Trials, a temporary tank was constructed in Boston’s Mechanics Hall and 14,000 spectators watched Penn beat Columbia in both swimming and water polo for the first “National” intercollegiate titles. The next year the Championship was contested again at the Sportsmen’s Show, this time in New York’s Madison Square Garden before another huge crowd.
One of Kistler’s most successful pupils was champion swimmer Edward Carroll Schaeffer, who attended the University from 1896 to 1902. Kistler, as a world mile champion himself, took Schaeffer under his wing and gave him special instruction. Within two weeks, Schaeffer broke the world record for 100-yard swim with a time that would stand for 17 years. Coach Kistler said “Schaeffer never had to extend himself in the middle distance events so I never did find out just how fast he could swim.”
Called “Midget’ because of his small stature, Schaeffer swam his way back from polio and weighed a scant 118 lbs. when he began his brilliant swimming career at Penn. Besides being a speed swimmer, he held the American record for swimming underwater (232 ft. 11 in) and held every American swimming record from 20 yards to a mile during his tenure at Penn.
Collegiate swimming was off to a great start. Yale University and Harvard University formed swimming and water polo teams in 1900, while Cornell University, the University of Chicago, the Armour Institute and the University of Wisconsin formed teams in 1901. Princeton University, Brown University and Washington University of St. Louis were next to take up swimming as a sport with water polo following in close order. But it wasn’t until 1906 that Penn, Princeton and Columbia formed the first swimming league: the “Intercollegiate Swimming Association.” By then, the pools built for the sportsmen’s shows were being used for motor boats and the Championships moved to the exhibition pools at the schools.
The opening of Weightman Hall at Penn – which replaced Houston Hall in 1904 and measured 30 feet wide x 100 feet in length – marked the beginning of Kistler’s transition from his job as the University’s swimming instructor to his career as a swimming/water polo coach. As a result of his influence, the Board of Trustees and the faculty of the University made it mandatory that every student be able to swim. With Kistler acting as the administrator, every student was required to complete the minimum requisite of two lengths of the pool (200 feet) to be eligible for graduation.
Weightman Hall established the standard length for an aquatics facility and led to other institution’s to begin playing catch-up. To keep up with Penn and Kistler, steel magnate and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie agreed to build Carnegie Pool at Yale – the best facility of its kind in the early 20th century.
Carnegie Pool was conceived and designed with the idea of, “providing not only a place for students to bathe and perfect themselves in the art of swimming, but also an amphitheater where lovers of aquatics could congregate and witness contests of speed, skill and endurance in swimming, water polo and kindred sports.”
Ogden Reid, the captain of Yale’s championship water polo team of 1905, presented Carnegie with the idea and worked out the plans by first giving his ideas to the architect. After his ideas had been placed on paper he then asked the leading competitive swimmers, coaches and managers in the country to criticize the drawings and make suggestions.
The pool measured seventy-five feet in length by thirty feet wide, ideal dimensions for both swimming races and water polo contests. It’s depth ranged from six to eleven feet and galleries provided step-like rows of seats which could accommodate nearly one-thousand persons. Beneath the gallery were locker rooms, the manager’s office and hot, steam rubbing and and shower rooms. The entire pool as well as the walks around it and the gallery wall were in blue and white tiles. There were five blue lines running lengthwise along the bottom of the pool to serve as sides for swimmers and plungers, and the water polo lines were distinctly marked on the sides as well as on the bottom. A system of tiles has been arranged to measure off the feet for plungers.
The room was also of an unusual height, measuring over fifty feet from the water to the roof, which, besides giving clean, pure air and plenty of it, afforded every opportunity for high divers to indulge in their favorite pastime. Future pools at the University of Michigan, Ohio State University and a new pool at Yale 20 years modeled Reid’s concept and established the groundwork for the modern facilities of today.
Kistler, who served as a swimming and water polo coach at Penn from 1897-to-1934, became one of the few men to be awarded a varsity letter without actually representing the red and blue in intercollegiate competition. The honor was given to him at the time of his retirement in June of 1934; he had already been succeeded by William Merriam as head coach several years earlier.
Beyond his swimming and water polo coaching prowess, he considered taking on the challenge of swimming across the English Channel during his early years in the United States. Although lack of financial support prevented him from accomplishing this feat, Kistler was able to achieve other extraordinary feats and, to his pupils, he was considered a living legend. It was said that “Kistler could run a hundred yards with the members of the varsity football team, throw the heavy-weight wrestlers about with ease, and on one occasion tossed a Japanese jiu jitsu expert who was giving an exhibition at the University half across the room.”
Two of Kistler’s best performances were swimming in the Delaware River. He swam from Philadelphia to Red Bank and back, a fourteen-mile trip taking three hours and fifty seven minutes. On another occasion he swam in the Delaware River from Philadelphia’s Market Street pier to one and a half miles beyond Chester and back. This trip amounted to 37.5 miles and took him eleven hours and eleven minutes.
Kistler’s swimming prowess even earned him induction into a Native American tribe. At the 1901 Sportsman’s Show in Philadelphia, the Ojibway tribe held an exhibit showing off their village as a part of the show. Each day of the show Penn swimmers took part in aquatic competitions with the tribe. When they impressed the tribe leaders with their swimming skills, each Penn swimmer was given a traditional Indian name during a ceremony at the end of the exhibition. Kistler was named “Mezhkaip,” meaning the turtle.
After a lifetime of remarkable accomplishments, Kistler spent his last number of years crippled from chronic arthritis and severe illnesses. He died in January of 1942 at the age of 77.