The Olympic swimmer known as ‘the human fish’
Alan Ford

Alan Ford was a 19-year-old Yale student when he broke five-time Olympic gold medalist Johnny Weissmuller’s world record of 51 seconds in the 100-yard freestyle, which had stood for 16 years. Ford became the first swimmer to break 50 seconds for that event—a barrier often likened to the four-minute mile.

Ford called himself “the human fish,” a title he borrowed from Weissmuller, said The New York Times. “He was, simply put, the fastest swimmer in the world.” Unlike more recent Olympic champions Mark Spitz and Michael Phelps, who were taller and leaner, Ford was a bullet-shaped 5-foot-9 athlete who weighed a muscular 170 pounds. Born in the Panama Canal Zone, where his father helped build the canal, he was 8 when he won his first swimming medal. He went on to swim for Yale, but the cancellation of the 1944 Summer Olympics, due to the war, cost Ford “his best chance at a gold medal.” He did win several national collegiate championships in the 50- and 100-yard freestyle events, and the 150-yard backstroke.

Ford decided in 1948 to try out again for the U.S. Olympic swim team, said the Sarasota, Fla., Herald-Tribune. Training intensively to rebuild his once-muscular frame, which had dwindled to 130 pounds, he made the team and captured the silver medal in the 100-meter freestyle event during the London games. Afterward he retired from swimming and worked in the U.S. and abroad, designing oil refineries. “Years of smoking later caught up with him and he developed emphysema,” which claimed his life.