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Johnny Weissmuller: More than Tarzan

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Swimming's first superstar took up the backstroke –– and set a world record in it –– because he "got bored."

When Johnny Weissmuller died Jan. 20, 1984, his iconic role as "Tarzan of the Jungle" in almost 20 movies was inevitably mentioned in the headlines. But Weissmuller also was swimming's first superstar, an incredible athlete who won five Olympic gold medals and set more than 65 world records.

"In 10 years of competition swimming, Johnny Weissmuller never lost a race. Not once," The Guardian newspaper noted in a recent article about "Heroes of Swimming." "No one has ever come close to a winning streak like Weissmuller's, certainly not in swimming."

In the pool, Weissmuller "was without peer in his time," his New York Times obituary said. "A remarkably buoyant 190-pounder, he seemed to glide across the water, his broad shoulders and heavily muscled back protruding above the surface."

Weissmuller swam mostly front crawl, but he excelled at multiple strokes. He took up the backstroke –– and set a world record in it –– because "I got bored," he said, "so I swam on my back, where I could spend more time looking around."

He won three gold medals at the 1924 Olympics in Paris, winning the 100-meter and 400-meter freestyles and swimming on the winning 800-meter-freestyle relay team. He also won a bronze medal as part of the men's water polo team. Four years later in Amsterdam, he won two more gold medals: one in the 100-meter freestyle and the other as part of the 800-meter relay team. Weissmuller also set 67 world records before he retired from swimming.

Weissmuller won fewer medals than recent swim champions such as Michael Phelps, but fewer events were open to him, the website Olympic.org notes. "Given the margin of superiority he had over his rivals, some experts still regard him as the greatest swimmer of all time."

Weissmuller first took on the role of Tarzan, the character created by author Edgar Rice Burroughs, in 1932. Other actors had played Tarzan, but critic David Thomson noted that Weissmuller became associated with the character because "he conjured up the notion of a swimming superman, a radio and newsreel hero, now lighted like a god," according to American National Biography Online.

"Weissmuller portrayed his action hero with long hair and a shaven body, wearing only a loin cloth while swinging from tree to tree," the site said. "While never taken seriously as an actor, his voice became an equally important part of his identity. His dialogue consisted of monosyllabic phrases taught to him by Tarzan's companion Jane. ... Weissmuller's first movie line, 'Me Tarzan, you Jane,' became part of screen lore, surpassed in fame only by the yodeling jungle yell he invented as Tarzan's signature."

"The public forgives my acting because they know I was an athlete," Weissmuller once said. "They know I wasn't make-believe."

Tarzan's –– and Weissmuller's –– popularity and effect on pop culture cannot be denied. During World War II, homesick soldiers asked that the Tarzan yell be broadcast to them at the battlefront, "both as a connection to home, and for the inspiration it gave," according to Ken Lashway on the Immortal Ephemera website.

Natalie Pompilio is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia. Her lifelong love of obituaries raised eyebrows when she was younger, but she's now able to explain that this interest goes beyond morbid curiosity. Says Pompilio, "Obituaries are mini life stories, allowing a glimpse into someone's world that we're often denied. I just wish we could share them with each other when we're alive."