Olympic Swimming Trials – History

The tale of two U.S. Olympic Swimming Trials in Indy, 100 years apart.
Photo courtesy Bass Photo Co Collection, Indiana Historical Society

A few hundred red and white tiles—embedded on the underside of a concrete slab bridge in Broad Ripple Park—is what’s left of the old Broad Ripple Pool, a former crown jewel of the Midwest and site of the 1924 U.S. Olympic Swimming Trials.

Seeing the antique tiles requires a short hike from the park’s tennis courts and someone to point you in the right direction. But USA Swimming history buffs will love the artifact, which is a physical reminder of this year’s 100-year anniversary of the U.S. Olympic Swimming Trials at Broad Ripple Park before the 1924 Paris Olympic Games.

A century later, Indianapolis is again hosting the U.S. Olympic Swimming Trials, June 15-23. Swimmers from all over the United States will converge on Indianapolis in hopes of qualifying for one of 52 spots on Team USA in the 2024 Summer Olympics in Paris—the same European city where the 1924 Olympic Games were held a century ago.

Two Massive Pools, 10 Miles and a Century Apart

Photo courtesy Bass Photo Co Collection, Indiana Historical Society

About 10 miles apart, the settings for the two different eras of U.S. Olympic Swimming Trials in Indianapolis are both historic.

To accommodate the nine days of this year’s trials, two-and-a-half Olympic-size pools were constructed inside Lucas Oil Stadium—home of the Indianapolis Colts—marking the first time ever that U.S. Olympic swimming trials have been staged in an NFL Stadium.

In 1924, the Olympic trials took place in a massive public pool of a different kind. Known as the world’s largest concrete pool, Broad Ripple Pool was a Midwestern destination for summertime family fun as well as a place for the highest level of swimming competition. The National Swimming Event—now known as the United States Swimming National Championships—was held at Broad Ripple Park pool in 1922. Then, two years later, came the U.S. Olympic Swimming Trials.

Measuring 450-feet long and 207-feet wide, Broad Ripple Pool featured sliding and diving boards, a diving tower, a geyser, and even an island in the middle. It opened in 1908 and held 4.5 million gallons of water. The pool is said to have been the most popular attraction at Broad Ripple Park, which also offered roller coasters, a zoo, and a variety of other activities.

Today there’s still a public pool at Broad Ripple Park, but the giant-sized one of the 1920s is long gone. After closing in the 1960s, the old pool was demolished and a few concrete slabs were left behind in the park, presumably too heavy to move. Although the slabs probably weren’t left as historical time capsules, that’s what they became.

Star Power at the 1924 Olympic Swimming Trials

Photo courtesy Bass Photo Co Collection, Indiana Historical Society

The Broad Ripple Pool isn’t the only fascinating fact about the 1924 U.S. Olympic Swimming Trials in Indianapolis. They also drew athletes with serious star power.

Team USA’s swimmers dominated competition at the Paris Olympics in 1924. The team won nearly 60 percent of all swimming medals and nine of 11 gold medals. Not only that, two of their best swimmers became international stars after retiring from swimming.

The most well known is Johnny Weissmuller, who built one of the best competitive swimming records of the 20th Century. Weissmuller won three Olympic Gold medals in the 1924 Paris Olympics—in the 100-meter freestyle, 400-meter freestyle, and the men’s 4×200-meter freestyle relay. He also earned a bronze medal as part of the Olympic water polo team.

Hawaiian swimmer Duke Kahanamoku arrived at the 1924 trials in Indianapolis with notoriety from his previous performances in the Olympic Games. He won three gold medals in the 1912 and 1920 Olympic Games—two in the 100-meter freestyle competition and one in the 4×200-meter freestyle relay. Although Weissmuller grabbed most of the glory at the 1924 Games, Kahanamoku earned a silver medal in the 100-meter freestyle.

Following the 1924 Olympic Games, both Weissmuller and Kahanamoku changed career paths, becoming bona fide celebrities.

Weissmuller famously portrayed the character Tarzan in 12 feature films from in the 1930s and 1940s. His voice was used as Tarzan’s signature call—a howling yell that has become a part of popular culture lore. (There are competing narratives about how the yell was created but the most consistent one is that Weissmuller’s voice was recorded and then manipulated to create the renowned call.)

Between Olympic competitions and, later, after retiring from the Olympics, Kahanamoku turned his attention to the sport of surfing and is credited for popularizing it around the world. While giving swimming exhibitions internationally, Kahanamoku incorporated surfing, generating interest in Southern California and Australia, which is now considered one of the world’s top surfing destinations.

A year after his appearance in the 1924 Olympic Games, Kahanamoku was also hailed for using his skills to save eight lives. Following a fishing boat accident in Newport Beach, Calif., Kahanamoku used his surfboard to make repeated trips through heavy surf to rescue eight men and recover the bodies of others who didn’t survive. The incident—referred to as “the most superhuman surfboard rescue act the world has ever seen” by police—caused lifeguards across the United States to begin using surfboards in water rescues.

Making Another Century of History

From Kahanamoku’s effect on water safety and surfing to Weissmuller’s popular culture legacy, retelling the stories of the U.S. Olympic Swimming Team members of 1924 is one way to celebrate the centennial anniversary of the 1924 Paris Olympic Games.

That history is repeating itself is another. Just like 100 years ago, the men and women who qualify for the 2024 U.S. Olympic Swimming Team in Indy will compete in the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris, which last hosted the Olympics in 1924.

Maybe all the positive synergy will create good luck for the swimmers who’ll compete in the 2024 Paris Games. We hope so. Bets are on this year’s U.S. Olympic Swimming Team, given the history of their counterparts in 1924.