The University of California has an extraordinary tradition of excellence in the sport of swimming. Cal students and alumni have won a total of 63 Olympic medals in swimming: 29 Gold, 21 Silver, and 13 Bronze. Two of Cal's all-time greatest athletes are swimmers: Matt Biondi, who has 12 Olympic medals, and Natalie Coughlin, who has 11 (and counting). And, of course, the Cal men's swimming team and the Cal women's swimming team have each just won back-to-back national championships. This tradition of Cal swimming glory can be traced back to one individual, Cal's first great swimmer, Ludy Langer.
The caption on this 1916 magazine cover reads: "The speediest quarter mile swimmer in America, Ludy Langer, of Los Angeles, who beat the Easterners last week."
A 1916 graduate of the University of California with a degree in civil engineering, Ludy Langer was one of the greatest swimmers of his era. He was largely responsible for making swimming into a varsity sport at Cal, and was the first swimmer to be awarded a varsity letter. He broke world records both while a student at Cal and after. And in 1920, he became both the first Cal alumnus to swim in the Olympics, and the first to win an Olympic medal in swimming. And the tradition Ludy Langer began is certain to be continued at the 2012 Olympics in London.
Ludwig Ernest Frank Langer, known universally as "Ludy," was born in Los Angeles on January 22, 1893. He had already been competing successfully in amateur middle-distance swimming events for a few years when he enrolled at the University of California and moved to Berkeley in 1912 to study engineering. He certainly did not come to Cal for its swimming program, since that "program" then consisted only of an informal swimming club. And that club had no collegiate competitors, since no other California school had even such a swimming club at the time.
But by the spring of 1914, Langer's sophomore year at Cal, the swimming team had become a force to be reckoned with. Cal's legendary track coach, Walter Christie, called them, "the best swimming team that has ever represented any American University." By the end of that season, E.M. Smith held the west coast record in the 50-yard freestyle (:58) and R.J. Koshland held the west coast record for 50-yard breast stroke. And Ludy Langer had the American record for the 880-yard freestyle (12:17).
The 1914 California swimming team: E.M. Smith, L.E. Langer, J.W. McElroy, R.J. Koshland, O.R. Marston, H.J. Harrell, and E.S. Thomas.
The 1914 team competed against local swimming clubs, such as the Olympic Club in San Francisco. And they made the first-ever trip to Southern California by Cal swimmers to take on the Los Angeles Athletic Club in a dual meet. The Cal swimmers won every event in which they participated. Desperate for some college-level competition, the team tried to arrange what the Blue and Gold yearbook called "an invasion of the East by the California team" for February and March of 1914. But the time away from school would have been too much. According to the Blue and Gold, "since the best possible schedule would have taken at least three weeks and as some of the best men could not have given up their studies for that long, the trip was given up."
The 1915 team was even better than the prior year. With Ludy Langer now the team captain, the Bears won the Pacific Athletic Association championship. Langer won both the 440 and 880 freestyle races. And the Bears won dual meets that year in Southern California against the San Diego Rowing Club and the Los Angeles Athletic Club. Still, the Bears hoped for collegiate competition and they were anxious for Stanford to start a swim team. As the 1915 Blue and Gold reported, "Stanford has been organizing a team, and with their new swimming tank completed next year, a Stanford-California meet will probably be arranged."
But Langer was not confined to college swimming. While at Cal, he competed in Amateur Athletic Union (A.A.U.) events against the best swimmers in the country. In 1915 he set several American records. On July 20, 1915, The New York Times reported that Ludy Langer had broken the record of Olympic champion Duke Kahanamoku in the quarter-mile:
Ludy Langer won the Amateur Athletic Union open water championship for the quarter mile today, breaking the American record formerly held by Duke Kahanamoku of Honolulu by 5 3/5 seconds. Langer's time was 5:32 1/5 . . . Langer won by twenty yards. He took the lead early and steadily pulled away from the field. Michael McDermott went into the water first, but all the contestants were close behind him. Langer crawled forward and established a short clear lead at the first turn, the 110-yard pole. Wheatley was three yards behind him, and N. Ross was third. At the second turn, Langer increased his lead and continued to gain until the finish.
Langer scored a triple victory at the 1915 A.A.U. Championships, winning the 440, 880, and the mile. And he repeated that feat in 1916, winning all three events at the A.A.U. Championships for the second consecutive year.
In the fall of 1915, the New York Tribune proclaimed Ludy Langer, "America's Best Swimmer of the Present Day." The Tribune noted that although it is difficult to compare swimmers who compete at different distances, Langer had shown the ability to beat all comers by convincing margins in every event in which he competed. Therefore, said the paper, when "asked to express an opinion" as to who was America's greatest swimmer, "it is unhesitatingly given in favor of Langer."
The 1916 Golden Bear swimming team. Team Captain Ludy Langer is in the front row, at the far left.
The 1916 California swimming team still had no collegiate competition, as the wait for Stanford to organize its team continued. But Ludy Langer continued to be a one-man juggernaut. At a dual meet against the San Diego Rowing Club, Langer finished first in six events. By the end of that year, he held the American records for the 440, 500, and 880 yard swims, and for the one mile swim. He also owned the world records for the indoor 440 swim and for the half mile. In February, Langer traveled to Hawaii, where he participated in several events against Olympic champion Kahanamoku, and defeated him in all the distance events, setting one of his world records in the process. Langer's world record in the 440 would stand until 1922.
The start of the 880-yard race between Duke Kahanamoku (foreground) and Ludy Langer in Honolulu in 1916. Although the photo shows Kahanamoku getting the quicker start, Langer won the race.
Upon Langer's return from his record-breaking trip to Hawaii, the Associated Students of the University of California, which ran Cal athletics at the time, voted for the first time ever to bestow a varsity letter on an athlete in a non-varsity sport, "for marked achievement to or service to the University." Langer thus became the first Varsity swimmer in Cal history. And the following year, 1917, the entire swimming team was raised to the level of a Varsity sport.
In 1916, Langer was at the absolute peak of his abilities. It was an Olympic year, and Ludy Langer earned a place on the U.S. Olympic team. He should have come home with several Gold Medals. But sadly for Langer -- and tragically for the world -- in 1916 the world was in the midst of the First World War. The Olympics, somewhat ironically scheduled for Berlin, were cancelled, and Langer lost his best chance at Olympic glory.
After graduating from Cal in the spring of 1916, Langer moved to Honolulu to train at the Hui Nalu Club, where Duke Kahanamoku and several other outstanding Hawaiian swimmers also trained. After the United States entered the World War in 1917, Langer joined the army. Lt. Langer spent most of the war stationed at a post in Georgia, and being sent around the country to perform in swimming contests to help with recruiting and the sale of war bonds.
In 1920, with the war over, the Olympics were slated for Antwerp, Belgium. Langer and five other swimmers from the Hui Nalu Club made up the majority of the American Olympic team. Langer qualified for the 400 meter and 1500 meter events. He thus became the first swimmer from the University of California to make the Olympic team.
The trip to Belgium was a bit rough on the American swimming team. They were supposed to travel on a fast, modern former troop ship called the Great Northern, but it broke down shortly before departure. So the team was put aboard the Princess Matioke, which had just been used to transport 1,800 American war dead. The ship stank of formaldehyde and was infested with rats. The men's team had to sleep on triple-decked hammocks in the hold. The women's team was at least given space in the upper decks. The Princess Matioke was so slow that the swimmers nicknamed it the Princess Slowpolka. It took the team two weeks to make the Atlantic crossing that should have taken 4 or 5 days, and they barely arrived in time for their events. Despite this less than ideal start, the American team would do extremely well at the 1920 Olympics.
The pools used for the swimming and diving events at the 1920 Antwerp Olympics. The athletes unanimously disliked the pools, finding them very dark, and the water extremely cold.
Langer had passed his prime by 1920. He finished only seventh in the Olympic 1,500 meters. But he finished second behind his U.S. teammate Norman Ross in the 400 meters, winning a Silver Medal, and becoming the first of many California Golden Bears to win an Olympic medal in swimming. The United States won five of the seven men's swimming events in the 1920 Olympics, as well as all three women's events. Langer and his teammates from Honolulu's Hui Nalu Club brought home a total of six medals, four Gold and two Silver. Despite this great success, the U.S. Olympic Committee tried to send the team home on the Princess Matioke. The swimmers rebelled and staged a "sit-in." The Olympic Committee gave in and found better accommodations for the triumphant team's return to America.
Following the Olympics, Langer continued to train in Hawaii and compete in A.A.U. events. In 1921 he won the A.A.U. championship in the 440-yard swim, beating the future Olympic great Johnny Weissmuller. It was the last time that Weissmuller would ever lose a race. Weissmuller would go on to win five Olympic Gold Medals in swimming in 1924 and 1928 and to become the most famous Tarzan in the history of the movies. (It was Weissmuller who first uttered the immortal line, "Me Tarzan, you Jane," and who originated the Tarzan yell. In fact, Weissmuller's yell was dubbed into all Tarzan movies for more than 50 years.) There is a legend that no one ever beat Johnny Weissmuller in a competitive meet. But Ludy Langer did.
The popularity of the Hawaiian-based Olympic swimmers was such that they made a several tours around the country and the world in the early 1920s, participating in swimming exhibitions. Langer, Kahanamoku, and Pua Kealoha toured Australia where, in addition to swimming, Kahanamoku famously introduced surfing to the Australians.
A folding pear-shaped promotional brochure for Langer and Kealoha's Australian swimming exhibitions, billing them as "The Wonder Pair."
After he retired from competitive swimming, Langer returned to Los Angeles, where he lived until his death in 1984, at the age of 91. He remained devoted to the University of California throughout his life. To this day, the Ludy Langer endowment helps defray the expenses of Cal's swimming teams, and the Ludy Langer Scholarship is awarded to a deserving men's swimmer. The 2008 and 2009 recipient of the Ludy Langer Scholarship was, fittingly, one of Cal's current great Olympic swimmers, Nathan Adrian.
In 1957, Langer was asked to participate in a television show called This Is Your Life, honoring his long-time friend and competitor, Duke Kahanamoku. This clip shows the 64-year-old Langer to have been a delightful gentleman:
Ludy Langer's son, also named Ludy, attended Cal in the late 1940s, where he played on the rugby team. He, too, was a passionate Cal fan and supporter who, according to his 2010 obituary, took considerable pride in having attended 65 Big Games.
In 1986, Ludy Langer was one of the original 18 inductees into the Cal Athletic Hall of Fame, and in 1988, he was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame.
Note: This is the second in a series of stories about early Cal Olympians. The first was about Robert Edgren, Cal's first Olympian.
Anonymous, "New Record in Swimming," The New York Times (July 20, 1915)
Blue and Gold Yearbooks, 1915, 1916, 1917 The H.S. Crocker Co, Inc., Berkeley, CA (1916-18)
Gonsalves, Kelly, et al., First to the Wall: 100 Years of Olympic Swimming, Freestyle Publications, Inc., East Longmeadow, MA (1999)
Handler, L., "Langer Picked as Best All-Around Swimmer," The New York Tribune (September 15, 1915)
Ludy Langer, Wikipedia (2012)
Ludy Langer, SR/Olympic Sports (2012)
Ludy Langer, International Swimming Hall of Fame (2012)
Swimming at the 1920 Olympics, Wikipedia (1920)