John H. Higgins, 88, swimming coach at Navy

August 08, 2004|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

John H. Higgins, the longtime director of aquatics and swimming coach at the Naval Academy who had been a member of the 1936 U.S. Olympic swimming team, died of pneumonia Aug. 1 at his Annapolis home. He was 88.

Mr. Higgins, who was a longtime leader in international, national and Naval Academy swimming, diving and water polo, was born and raised in Providence, R.I.

It was a childhood bout with whooping cough at the age of 4 that resulted in his becoming a swimmer.

"The doctor advised his parents that he be taken to a place where there was plenty of fresh air, sunshine and saltwater, so they bought a summer house at Apanog, near Warwick, Rhode Island," said his daughter, Joan Graham of Annapolis. "So he was 5 years old when his mother threw him into Narragansett Bay. And that's when he first learned how to swim."

As a teenage champion swimmer from Central High School in Providence, he won the city high school championship, and earned All-New England status, AAU titles and a berth on the U.S. Olympic team.

In the 1936 Olympic trials, Mr. Higgins broke the world record with a 2:41.1 in the breaststroke-butterfly medley.

The record stood until 1948. Between 1934 and 1940, he broke 10 world and 21 American records.

A favorite to win the gold in the breast stroke-butterfly at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, Mr. Higgins finished fourth in 2:42.8, against a Japanese swimmer whose time was 2:42.2.

Years later, Mr. Higgins still felt the sting of losing the gold.

"I was very dejected. Very dejected," he told The Sun in a 1987 interview. "Everybody came over to me, asking what had happened. I told them I lost the race. What else can you say? I felt lousy."

While attending the Olympics, he began to see and understand the effects of Nazism on Germany, and saw that war was inevitable.

"Hermann Goering [head of the German air force] was there when we were welcomed to Berlin. When we had the reception, all of our black athletes were pushed in the background because they really stressed the Aryan race over there," he said in the interview.

While Chancellor Adolf Hitler refused to shake hands with Jesse Owens, the African-American athlete who had won four gold medals in track and field, he greeted Mr. Higgins at a swimming practice.

"When he came to the pool, all of the athletes jumped out, including the Americans. They lined up, and Hitler went down the line shaking their hands," said Roy Graham, a son-in-law.

After the Olympics, Mr. Higgins returned to Ohio State University, where he continued what grew into a lifetime friendship with Jesse Owens, also a student at the university, and where the accomplished swimmer earned a bachelor's degree in physical education in 1940. While a member of the Buckeyes' swimming team, Mr. Higgins was a three-time All-American.

With the outbreak of World War II, he enlisted in the Navy and was sent to Pensacola, Fla., where he instructed shipboard personnel and pilots in how to evacuate sinking ships and downed aircraft, and in water survival techniques.

He later served as a gunnery officer on aircraft carriers in the Pacific. He was discharged from the Navy in 1946, and a month later was recalled to active duty to teach Navy and Marine pilots swimming and survival tactics at Pensacola.

Still on active duty, he joined the academy in 1950 as director of aquatics instruction and coach of the varsity swimming and diving teams. After leaving the Navy with the rank of lieutenant commander in 1954, he remained at the academy as a civilian instructor and associate professor.

During his 23 years at Navy, he coached 28 All-Americans. In an upset victory in 1961, his team beat Yale University, which had won 202 consecutive meets dating to 1943.

"That had to be my crowning glory," Mr. Higgins told The Sun. "We only won by one point. The last relay we won by a quarter of a yard."

"He was a strict but encouraging coach and a profound influence on my life," recalled John E. Kane, captain of the 1968 swim team at the academy.

"He was an intellectually and physically strong character. He was a strict disciplinarian who put us through tough, hard workouts. He wanted us to always win but in the right way," he said.

"I got to know John when we were both physical education instructors at the academy," said Dick Purdy, the recently retired Navy women's swim coach.

"In 1975, I was coaching the swim team at Anne Arundel Community College, and he came over to talk to my swimmers and give them a few pointers," Mr. Purdy said. "Even though he had been to the highest levels of the sport, he was always interested in helping those who were interested in swimming."

Although he retired as Navy's coach in 1973, Mr. Higgins remained as aquatics director until retiring in 1983. In 1981, he helped design Lejeune Hall, the academy's aquatics center, where the locker room and a section of the pool are named for him.

After 50 years of competitive swimming, Mr. Higgins began to experience leg problems and, after a 1979 knee operation, stopped competing. However, he continued swimming in the academy pool until he was in his 80s.

"He was a very modest man who never bragged about his life or achievements. If you asked, then he'd tell you," said Mr. Graham, the son-in-law.

Mr. Higgins was a member of the International Swimming Hall of Fame, as well as the Rhode Island Heritage and Ohio State University halls of fame. In 1997, he was inducted into the Maryland Swimming Hall of Fame.

Mr. Higgins was married for 51 years to the former Betsy "Betts" Brehm, who died in 1993.

A memorial service will be held at 9:30 a.m. Sept. 9 at the academy chapel in Annapolis.

In addition to his daughter, Mr. Higgins is survived by a son, John H. Higgins III of Winter Park, Fla.; four grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren.

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