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by Author Unknown

July 19, 2000

1936 Olympics to U.S. Navy to coach

John Higgins (USA) was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame as an Honor Swimmer in 1971. The following text was included in the program for the induction ceremony of that year:

First world record butterfly breaststroke. Won 11 U.S. national championships, coach and official.

1971 could be called the year of the butterfly, judging from the International Swimming Hall of Fame's honoree selection, with three swimmers. John Higgins, Bill Yorzyk and Mike Troy all inducted as pioneers in the evolution of the butterfly stroke.

The first of these was John Higgins who was the first swimmer to set a world breaststroke record going all the way with the butterfly arm stroke. Higgins went 1:1O.8 for the 100-meter breaststroke at New Haven, Conn., on February 22, 1936. He lowered it to 1:10 flat on March 3 as the only man to break the record in that first year that the overwater butterfly arm stroke was practiced as an option on the traditional underwater breaststroke arm action.

The traditional "frog" kick was required by the rules in both until after the 1952 Olympics when Iowa's coach Dave Armbruster succeeded in getting his pet butterfly with the dolphin kick legalized.

In the 1936 Olympic Trials, Higgins established a new American and world record of 2:44.1 for the 200-meter fly. This record was standing for 12 years. His long career started with the YMCA and Olnyville R.I., Boys Club and wound up with the U.S. Navy after four record-shattering years at Ohio State. During this period he won 11 nationals while also setting world and American records in the individual medley and medley relays as well as in the butterfly breaststroke. He continued his swimming while in the Navy and competed for 21 years overall. After retiring as a swimmer, John Higgins stayed in his sport as the long-time swimming coach of the U.S. Naval Academy. He is a past president of both the College Swim Coaches Association and the International Swimming Hall of Fame.

Courtesy of The Henning Library at the International Swimming Hall of Fame.

It was 43 years ago (in 1935) when John Higgins started going to the Brown University pool to try to break national and world record swim times. Yesterday (in 1978), John was back in the pool again at Brown again, still setting national swim records.

Higgins, the Rhode Island native, who went on to fame as an Olympic swimmer and swim coach at the Naval Academy, was one of the stars yesterday (1978) in the opening day of the four day National AAU Masters Long Course Swimming Championships.

Higgins won three events in his age group, the 200-yard breaststroke, the 200-yard backstroke, and the 400-yard individual medley. Even with his accomplishments, it was easy not to notice him. At 62 years old, he is not that much above the average age of the 527 competitors from throughout the United States, England, Venezuela and Canada taking part in this eighth annual event.

Higgins grew up in Providence, on Public Street, went to Central High and swam a lot at the Providence YMCA, and later, and most prominently, at the Olneyville Boys' Club. Joe Whatmough, then the coach at the Olneyville Club, took Higgins under his wing and developed him into one of the top swimmers in the country.

In his time, Higgins was a world record holder, in the breaststroke. "That was in 1935, I went up to the Brown pool—that's the old Brown pool, not this beautiful one here, the old two lane job—and they wanted me to try for a world record," Higgins was recalling with pleasure. "I did it. I set the world record. One of my records stood for 12 years."

He went on to the 1936 Olympics where he settled for fourth place in his specialty, then Ohio State University, and the Navy. He was in the Navy until 1954 and was the swim coach at Annapolis until 1973 when he retired from coaching. He kept his job—and still has it—as aquatics director at the Academy.

from the Journal-Bulletin, 1978


John Higgins 1916 - 2004

Retired Navy Commander John Herbert Higgins, 88, a Naval Academy associate professor and a longtime leader in international, national and academy swimming, diving and water polo, died of pneumonia Aug. 1, 2004, at his home in Annapolis, Maryland.

Cmdr. Higgins was born in 1916, in Providence, R.I. He was a member of the U.S. Olympic swimming team in the breaststroke at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. He graduated from Ohio State University in 1940. While at OSU he developed the overhand recovery stroke which eventually became swimming's butterfly stroke.

At one time he held 10 world records and 21 American records. He once broke five world records in a single meet. He was an NCAA All-American swimmer three times. In 1940 he was Ohio State's outstanding senior athlete and swim team captain.

After graduation, he enlisted in the Navy and was assigned to Pensacola to train pilots in exiting sinking aircraft, in swimming and sea survival. During World War II he was aboard aircraft carriers and onshore at naval air stations. Released in January 1946, he was recalled to active duty the next month to continue swimming and survival programs at Pensacola.

In 1950, the Navy assigned him as director of aquatics instruction at the academy and as coach of varsity swimming and diving. In 1954 he was promoted to commander and left active duty, becoming a civilian instructor and associate professor.

He taught thousands of midshipmen, sent Navy swimmers and divers to the Olympics and took U.S. swimming and diving teams to European, World University and Pan American games.

His 1961 Navy team was the first to beat Yale after Yale had won more than 200 consecutive meets for 18 years.

He and his wife, Betts, often served as swimming officials at college meets, NCAA championships and Olympic trials. In 1965 he was elected president of the College Swimming Coaches Association of America.

In 1971 and 1972 he was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., first as a swimmer and then as coach, and was elected its president. He coached at Navy until 1973. He was an 18-times champion in Masters swimming before knee operations in 1979.

Cmdr. Higgins helped to design Lejeune Hall at the academy and served as director of aquatics until retirement in 1983, when he was named associate professor emeritus.

In the 1980s he was inducted into the Rhode Island Heritage and Aquatics Halls of Fame and the OSU Sports Hall of Fame. In the 1990s he served in the board of the International Swimming Hall of Fame and in 1997 was inducted into the Maryland Swimming Hall of Fame.

His wife, who was one of two women who started the wedding hostesses program at the academy, died June 11, 1993.

Surviving are a son, John H. Higgins III of Winter Park, Fla.; a daughter, Joan Graham of Annapolis; four grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held at 9:30 a.m. Sept. 9 at the academy chapel, with inurnment in the columbarium. Arrangements are by Taylor Funeral Home.

In lieu of flowers, contributions may be made to the Hospice of the Chesapeake, 445 Defense Highway, Annapolis, MD 21401, or the Naval Academy Foundation, 247 King George St., Annapolis, MD 21402, specifying the gifts be for excellence in leadership, swimming, diving and water polo.

The Capital newspaper (Annapolis, Md.) on August 4, 2004

Also see Navy, US Swimming Legend Higgins Passes Away

submitted by Barbara Dunbar



  • Olympians