Recollections of Yale, across the decades. Send your own memories to be considered for posting to, with subject line “For Memories.”
Ico comments 1 comment | Ico print Print | Ico email Email | Facebook | | RSS

The swimming lesson

Even after I passed all the important entry requirements for Yale—SATs, interviews, essays, and high school transcript—one final test awaited me: swimming. Yale men not only had to be academically proficient and physically erect; they also had to be able to swim the length of the pool in the Payne Whitney Gym. Among 1,000 students in the Class of 1958, only two couldn’t pass the swim test. I was one of them.

I never learned to swim. We were not a seafaring family. So, rather than embarrass myself with the attempt, I confessed my failure up front and was assigned to the Yale remedial swimming class along with the other non-swimmer, a whale of a guy from Texas.

I faced another humiliation when I showed up for my first swimming lesson. Apparently, Yale didn’t believe in bathing suits. One swam naked in Yale’s pool. Something about hygiene, I assumed. Before entering the pool, I had to go through a series of “cleansings.” First you showered, and then you passed over an inverted v-shaped device that you straddled as you walked along, with water shooting up between your legs, something akin to a car wash. Finally, you stepped into a tray of disinfectant, then out into the steamy pool area.

I must say the pool was impressive: 25 yards long, with six lanes. It had a viewing room below the water line that had been recently installed for a TV special featuring Esther Williams. I knew that Olympic medal winners and NCAA champions had trained in this pool. Now it was my turn to learn to swim in it.

I stood at the edge of the pool next to my laconic Texas “teammate,” awaiting our instructor. He arrived shortly, wearing sweat pants and a Yale T-shirt. He announced that he was one of the assistants to Bob Kiphuth, Yale’s renowned swim coach. He told us Kiphuth guided the Bulldogs’ swimming and diving teams to a record of 528 wins and only 12 losses, along with four NCAA titles. “That makes him the winningest swim coach in history,” he said with pride of association.

Our instructor told us that Coach Kiphuth and his staff had developed a swimming method that was guaranteed “to get you moving in the water in no time at all.” That certainly boosted my confidence. After years of faking swimming moves, I might at last learn to swim.

“Okay, here’s how we’ll do it. You two guys just slip over the edge and into the water. Don’t worry, it’s only three feet at this end, and you’re going to go across the width.” That sounded easy enough. My whale-mate and I followed instructions. We were in the water. Now what?

“Now, turn toward me with your back to the opposite side of the pool. What you’re going to do is lean back into the water, look up to the ceiling, relax, and float.” We both tried, but went under, the Texan struggling to get his head above water. I just calmly went down and stood up, spewing water. We repeated this maneuver over and over with the same result. Our instructor told us to press our elbows into our waists and flap our arms like birds to keep afloat and to propel us across the pool. That didn’t work either. Our time was up and we were scheduled for three weekly sessions until we could “get it right.”

Our training went on for three weeks, and much to my surprise and chagrin, the Texan managed to “swim” back and forth across the pool and was deemed ready for the real test—to swim the length of the pool and back. I, on the other hand, continued to sink. I could sense the frustration in my instructor and my growing frustration as well.

After several more weeks of unsuccessful attempts, my instructor announced that he’d asked Coach Kiphuth himself to observe my efforts at our next session. Wow! The winningest swim coach in history was coming to teach me. I must have really been a challenge!

I was anxious and excited to meet Coach Kiphuth. I was at the pool early, decked out in my birthday suit, awaiting his arrival. I was surprised to see this legend in the flesh, small in stature, thinning grey hair, wearing red sweat pants and a white tee, and carrying a long pole that he used to tap out a cadence for the swim team’s calisthenics. He was shaped like an inverted teardrop: barrel-chested, with slim legs. He conferred with my instructor and then turned to me.

“Kid, get in the water and show me what your problem is.”

I obeyed. Rolled over on my back and tried to back-flap across the pool. No luck.

“You’re not fighting the sinking,” Kiphuth yelled out. “Do it again, and this time arch your back and push your pecker up to the ceiling!”

I tried and tried. Coach Kiphuth kept pounding his long pole on the sideline as he chanted, “Pecker up! Pecker up! Pecker up! Better, that’s better.” With that, he turned the instruction back to his assistant and left.

By the end of the session, I was successfully navigating the backstroke across the width of the pool. That’s when I realized Coach Kiphuth was some coach! My instructor told me we’d have one more lesson that week and then I should return on Friday ready to swim the length of the pool and, hopefully, fulfill Yale’s swimming requirement.

To my surprise, Coach Kiphuth had returned to watch my performance. He might have been concerned that I would drown. There was no gradual immersion. I stood at the deep end (12 feet!), anxious and a little self-conscious, with all eyes on me in my nakedness. As I looked down the length of the pool, I was gripped with fear. It seemed a long way to go. Coach rapped his pole on the poolside and shouted, “Jump in!”

After a slight hesitancy and a brief prayer, I jumped off the edge. Whoa! I didn’t realize how deep the deep end was. I plunged down and down, swirling water and bubbles, wondering how would I get back up. I flailed my arms and kicked my legs and managed somehow to surface. Once I could see the ceiling, I knew it was time to roll over and do my thing. Flap, flap, flap, flap, I streaked across the pool and back, barely slowing down for fear of drowning.

I kept my pecker up and passed the swim requirement. Now I was a fully accredited Yalie. Bob Kiphuth and his assistant disappeared. They’d done their work and were most likely pleased to get rid of me.

Unfortunately, I was too embarrassed to sign up for further swimming lessons, so to this day, I don’t know how to swim. Unless, of course, paddling on my back counts. And I’d have to take my trunks off first.


Andrew Letendre ’58 has previously written for “Memories” about another naked occasion at Yale—having his “posture photo” taken—and about taking part in a pipe-smoking contest (fully clothed).

Filed under swimming, Bob Kiphuth

1 comment

  • Timothy Hayes
    Timothy Hayes, 7:43am August 02 2016 | Ico flag Flag as inappropriate

    I remember that in 1967 you had to be able to swim the length of the pool...and you could not wear a swim suit or trunks of any kind.i have to admit it was kind of scary...the next year had to wear trunks....I think the fact that undergrad women were about to be allowed had a lot to do with that

The comment period has expired.