The Championship Lake Swimmers
Between 1936 and 1939 a remarkable team of Wyoming Valley and Harvey’s Lake swimmers dominated major swimming contests at the Lake. These special years were preceded by water sport contests in 1934 and 1935 which eventually led to championship swimming events at the Lake.
During the July 4, 1934, holiday week 20,000 people watched the start of a seven day “swim-a-thon” at Sandy Beach, one of the nation’s earliest swimming marathons. Over a seven day period, teams from Wilkes-Barre, Pittston, Plymouth and Nanticoke competed around a one-eighth mile course. The rules required at least one member of each team of swimmers in the water during the race which ran continuously for 24 hours for each of the seven days. Al Shepard was the race promoter with George Jones (Meyers High School staff) and Jack Dalton as key aides. (In later life Jones was intimately involved with officiating local swim meets and in 1977 he became a member of the Pennsylvania Swimming Hall of Fame at Penn State). At the close of the 1934 event the Wilkes-Barre team won first place after completing 1,162 laps for a total of 211 miles in the water. The Pittston team completed 210 miles followed by Nanticoke with 209 miles.
In 1935 the Wyoming Valley Chapter of the American Red Cross sponsored “King Neptune Wins” day at the Lake in mid-August at the Picnic Grounds. Viewed by 3,000 the Sunday event was a series of pageant scenes demonstrating swimming instruction, lifesaving, Olympic aquatics and clown diving. The events were led by R.G. Zubrod, a national aquatic expert and director of aquatics at the local YMCA. Among the participants were Ruth Rittenmeyer, an extremely talented competitive swimmer from the West Side, and George Jones as a clown diver.
The Y and Lake coach, Robert G. Zubrod, was an early employee of the Pennsylvania YMCA who was a National 100 yard breaststroke champion in his youth. Between 1923 and 1931 he won 146 medals and 27 trophies in Northeast U.S. swimming events. He qualified for the U.S. Olympic swimming team in 1932 but was later disqualified because he had been a paid lifeguard in a YMCA. (In the 1932 Olympics, Buster Crabbe, the former swimmer/actor, won the gold medal in the 400 meter freestyle by one-tenth of a second over Jean Taris, France).
In the mid and late 1930s there was booming interest in aquatic sports due to a variety of events. Johnny Weissmuller (the movie “Tarzan”) was the swimming star of the 1924 and 1928 Olympics which were now scheduled for Hitler’s Germany in 1936. Weissmuller appeared in the Wyoming Valley and at the Lake in July 1931. President Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration (WPA) was supporting the building of pools in the valley cities. The WPA and YMCA were leaders in teaching swimming and life-saving in response no doubt to annual Summer drownings of unskilled youths who swam in the Susquehanna River. The Lake’s size and public beaches were a perfect setting to stage long-distance and competitive swimming events. Finally, a championship team of swimmers were emerging from the Wilkes-Barre YMCA and from natural talent at the Lake.
Copyright 2006-2008 F. Charles Petrillo