Creator Edgar Rice Burroughs himself was happy to endorse Johnny Weissmuller as The Real Tarzan, writes Cyril McHale


There was only one screen Tarzan. Well, ten other film and TV actors did play the Edgar Rice Burroughs fictional ‘Tarzan of the Apes’, but only one had the requisite dominant presence to be Lord of the Jungle, the abandoned infant reared by apes.

Peter Johann Weissmuller was born a Catholic in Freidorf, Romania, on June 2nd, 1904, to parents who were Banat Swabians, a German ethnicity. In January 1905, when he was 7 months old, the family emigrated to Pennsylvania in the U.S., where Johnny’s brother Peter was born not long after. Three years later, they moved to Chicago to join his mother’s family.

Cruelly, Johnny contracted polio when he was about 9 years old, and he began swimming lessons on medical advice to combat it. He quickly discovered his natural talent for water sports, and soon he was winning local competitions.

However, his father deserted the family when Johnny was still in eighth grade. Thus, he left school and worked at everything he could to assist his mother and younger brother to make ends meet, including selling food produce from a cart.

Acquiring membership of the YMCA at a young age enabled him to enter and triumph in more competitions, and he later became a member of the prestigious Illinois Athletic Club; proving also to be an excellent diver, runner and high-jumper.

Johnny also worked as a lifeguard, and is credited with saving a large number of lives.

Under the fatherly tutelage of renowned coach Bill Bachrach, he developed a ‘hydroplaning’ technique which allowed him to swim higher above water, increasing speed, and subsequently set his first two freestyle world records.

In 1922 became the first man to dip under a minute for the 100-metre freestyle. He was also the first man to swim 440 yards in under five minutes.
To summarize his staggering sports legacy, between the 1924 Paris Olympics and the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics, the hugely popular Johnny won five gold medals over distances from 100-metre to 400-metre freestyle including the 2 x 400-metre relay, taking time out to entertain the crowds with comedic diving, set all world freestyle records from 100 yards to half-mile that stood for years, and retired undefeated as an amateur.

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