WEISSMULLER

The Associated Press declared "Windber native son" Johnny Weissmuller the greatest swimmer of the first half of the 20th Century.

Weissmuller won five Olympic gold medals and set 67 world records before a long film career playing "Tarzan."

It wasn't until after his death in 1984 that it was revealed in a Sports Illustrated article that Weissmuller was actually born in Romania and moved with his parents to Windber when he was seven months old.

He later claimed Windber as his birthplace so that he could obtain a passport and swim for the U.S. team in the 1924 Paris Olympics.

Weissmuller's family moved again when he was young and he grew up in Chicago. But he was sincere in his claim that Windber was his "hometown" – despite roots in Europe, ties to the Midwest and a home in Hollywood.

"I've never forgotten Windber," Weissmuller said before his February 1967 induction into Cambria County War Memorial Hall of Fame. "When I meet people from Pennsylvania, I always tell them I am from Windber."

He declared as much on April 19, 1950, when Windber welcomed him home for a town celebration. Weismuller called the reception "the biggest thrill I ever had in my life, and this includes the events when I won the Olympic titles in 1924 and 1928 and was presented medals by the queen of the Netherlands."

Weismuller was a tall, skinny child when he took to the pool for the first time as an 8-year-old.

"I was sickly," he later said. "I started swimming to build myself up. And it didn't take me long to realize the Good Lord had given me a special gift, that I could swim faster than anybody else I came across in swimming pools."

Weismuller won 53 U.S. swimming championships and set 67 world records. He won five Olympic gold medals in freestyle events, and even added a bronze medal with the U.S. water polo team.

Weissmuller – who once said of himself: "I was better than Mark Spitz" – was undefeated in his amateur career.

In a 1970 interview, he described how he was selected for a "Tarzan" screen test while selling pools and bathing suits in Florida.

"Funny thing is, I really only went to Hollywood for the screen test in the first place so I could meet Clark Gable and Jean Harlow," Weissmuller said.

He shot 19 "Tarzan" movies over the next 20 years – on his way to being named the greatest Tarzan actor of all time.

Weissmuller said he was paid $100,000 per Tarzan film, and "I blew much of that on alimony, fast cars and yachts, but I still have enough yet."

Of the Jungle King role, Weissmuller once said: ''It was like stealing. There was swimming in it, and I didn't have much to say. How can a guy climb trees, say 'Me Tarzan, you Jane,' and make a million?''

He was married five times – to singer Bobby Arnst, actress Lupe Velez, socialite Beryl Scott, golfer Allene Gates, and Maria Brock Mandell Bauman, a native of Bavaria.

Weissmuller battled heart disease late in life and had a series of strokes in 1977. He and Bauman were living in Acapulco, Mexico, when Weissmuller died in January 1984.

In naming him the best swimmer of the first half of the 20th Century, the Associated Press said the voting was "overwhelming."

"It was a case of 'there was no second.' ... When he retired in 1929, Weissmuller held every world freestyle record from 100 yards to a half-mile."

Chip Minemyer is the editor of The Tribune-Democrat. He can be reached at (814) 532-5091. Follow him on Twitter @MinemyerChip.