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How Charles Daniels turned American swimming from joke to juggernaut

Charles M. Daniels was the first American swimmer to win Olympic gold — but even after he left the 1904 Olympic Games in St. Louis with three gold medals, one silver, one bronze and a world record, his biggest challenges were still ahead. The British had skipped the 1904 Olympics, and their competitive swimmers were a powerhouse that put the Americans to shame. And what about this newfangled crawl being tried out by the Australians?

Charles Daniels, photographed at the 1908 London Olympics just after winning gold.
Random House
Charles Daniels at the 1908 London Olympics just after winning gold.

St. Louis author Michael Loynd vividly depicts the early days of Olympic swimming in his new book, “The Watermen: The Birth of American Swimming and One Man’s Fight to Capture Olympic Gold.” A sports attorney and chairman of the St. Louis Olympic Committee, Loynd said he became intrigued by Daniels’ story while researching St. Louis’ Olympics.

Author Michael Loynd is also chairman of the St. Louis Olympic Committee.
Jocelyn Seagrave
Author Michael Loynd is also chairman of the St. Louis Olympic Committee.

“I came across this guy who won five medals, and one of them was the first gold medal by any American swimmer,” Loynd recalled on Tuesday’s St. Louis on the Air. “So I thought that was interesting. Then I started digging deeper. And I found out he invented the freestyle stroke and really he started U.S. swimming.”

Loynd said he was left with one question: “How do we not know about him?” But, Loynd added, “He was very humble. And he didn't really want the spotlight.”

Listen to Michael Loynd on St. Louis on the Air

Daniels initially pursued swimming at a time few Americans considered it a sport, much less had access to it. Sport was considered a cure for anxiety, Loynd explained. Since Daniels wasn’t good at any other sports, his dad all but threw him into a pool and commanded him to swim.

The young Daniels had good reason to be anxious: He was the only child of divorced parents at a time when that was a ticket to social ruin. Beyond that, in Loynd’s telling, his father was “kind of the Bernie Madoff of his day.”

But while Daniels initially seemed to show no special talent for swimming, he changed that by sheer hard work. Eventually, he was setting world records even under enormously challenging conditions.

As Loynd’s book makes clear with impressive detail, early Olympics were truly amateur events, with swimming matches undertaken in an artificial lake (St. Louis) or frigid, choppy seas (Athens). “The 100-meter race turned into basically a 115-meter race, ‘cause the buoys kept moving in the waves,” Loynd said.

Beyond that, the early Olympics came before swimmers had developed the strokes we take for granted today. It took endless trial and error to lead Daniels to the American crawl that now dominates freestyle events.

Loynd spent two years working on the book and was able to draw on contemporaneous newspaper accounts, the archives of the International Swimming Hall of Fame and interviews with Daniels’ granddaughters. They assured Loynd that even after their grandpa stepped away from serving as the face of U.S. swimming, and stopped competing, he continued to swim, moving to a spot in Carmel-by-the Sea, California, where he earned a living as a woodcrafter.

“Most of his Carmel friends had no idea he was a famous Olympic swimmer, nor that the six-beat ‘freestyle’ crawl many of them swam in the ocean was his invention,” Loynd writes in “The Watermen.” “He never spoke of such things.”

Today, his legacy continues. It wasn’t just that he was an amazing athlete whose successes persuaded the U.S. Olympic committee to build a swimming program. It was his tireless promotion of the nascent sport he loved.

Said Loynd, “Even in 1904, a lot of kids probably didn't even know competitive swimming was a sport until he started making headlines.” After Daniels’ even bigger triumph in 1908 London, he became swimming’s ambassador: “He spent the next three, four years traveling the country. He didn't make any money doing this. He'd show up at pools that got started. He just wanted to teach people a crawl stroke.

“He wanted to get people excited about swimming. And he really started the roots of our culture.”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Emily Woodbury, Kayla Drake, Danny Wicentowski and Alex Heuer. Avery Rogers is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Sarah Fenske served as host of St. Louis on the Air from July 2019 until June 2022. Before that, she spent twenty years in newspapers, working as a reporter, columnist and editor in Cleveland, Houston, Phoenix, Los Angeles and St. Louis.