The Unknown Story of America’s First Swimming Champion

by | Jun 10, 2022

Charles Daniels

I just finished a book written by a friend of mine: The Watermen: The Birth of American Swimming and One Young Man’s Fight to Capture Olympic Gold. It is along the lines of Boys in the Boat and Unbroken — a story of perserverance and grit.

America is a swimming powerhouse, having earned 574 Olympic medals. The next closest country is Australia with 208. But the U.S. wasn’t always a dominant swimming country. When swimming was being birthed as a compeitive sport in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century the British and Australians dominated. Those countries had thousands of swimmers while the U.S. had just a few hundred.

How did the U.S. go from a swimming embarrasement to a powerhouse? It is partly due to America’s first swimming champion, Charles Daniels, popularizing the sport in the U.S. and inspiring a generation of compeitive swimmers. Wait. Who?

Well known American swimming champions include Michael Phelps, Mark Spitz, Matt Biondi, Ryan Lochte, Janet Evans, and Katie Ledecky. But did you know that Charles Daniels had the most number of Olympic swimming medals (seven) until Mark Spitz passed him in 1972? Or that Daniels held the world record in every swimming distance from 25 yards to the mile? Amazing.

The Watermen tells Charles Daniels’s story. As a child he struggle with anxiety and was afraid of the water. He was skinny and wasn’t good at other sports. So, his rise to world-record holder and Olympic gold medalist was an unlikely one.

The book also tells the story of the invention of modern swimming and the “crawl”which Charley helped pioneer (the crawl is what most people refer to a “freestyle”) and the birth of the modern Olympics. The Watermen is a page-turner — I highly recommend it.


  1. He looks like a Kennedy !

  2. Sounds like a great story. I bet it will be a movie before long, too.


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