Johnny Weissmuller
Screenshot from the trailer for the film Tarzan the Ape Man (1932) with Johnny Weissmuller as Tarzan. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

When American actor Johnny Weissmuller swung from tree vines across the jungle, calling out a distinctive ululating yell, he embodied the character he was portraying: Tarzan. But that’s not the most notable thing he did – not even remotely. Because Weissmuller was an Olympic champion.

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From 1932 to 1948, Weissmuller would be remembered for the 12 films he starred in, which were based on the action-adventure book series, Tarzan, by American author Edgar Rice Burroughs. The story centres on a noble man who lives like a primate, since he was abandoned in a jungle as a child and raised by apes.

But before he became an actor, Weissmuller was an Olympian – a very good one. In the 1920s, the freestyle swimmer won five Olympic gold medals and set 67 world records! In fact, he was the first man to swim the 100-metre freestyle in under a minute, and the 440-yard freestyle in under five minutes.

According to the US-based International Swimming Hall of Fame (ISHF), he never lost a race and retired with an unbeaten amateur record. In 1950, he was named the greatest swimmer of the first half of the 20th century by the American news agency Associated Press.

When Weissmuller was selected to play Tarzan, however, the producer had no idea he was a world-famous swimmer. According to ISHF, he asked him his name on the first day and when Weissmuller responded, he told him his last name was too long and that it would never take off in show business. Hearing his comment, the director of the film interrupted them and asked the producer if he ever read the newspaper. He then informed the producer about Weissmuller’s accomplishments, and advised the writers to give the actor as many opportunities to swim on screen as they could.

Recounting this incident years later, Weissmuller is known to have said: “I owe everything to swimming… It not only made my name, it saved my name.”

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