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Original Issue


For nearly 30 years, beginning in the late 1920s, Bob Zimmerman made his living as a lecturer, both on the Chautauqua circuit and for the Chicago and Rochester, N.Y. School Assembly associations. Posters urged folks to hear about THE MOST DANGEROUS JOB IN THE WORLD...NOTED SWIMMER AND DEEP-SEA DIVER TELLS OF ADVENTURE ON THE OCEAN'S FLOOR...UNIQUE! AMAZING! THRILLING! GRIPPING! SPECTACULAR! EXHIBIT AND STORY!

And what tales Zimmerman would tell. Stories about this century's first great swimmers, Charlie Daniels and others; about battling barracudas, in the Atlantic and rapids on the St. Lawrence; about searching for sunken treasure; about making the first underwater motion picture and single-handedly saving a film crew from drowning during a hurricane.

Today, at 98, Zimmerman is believed to be the oldest living Olympian in North America. When people attain Zimmerman's age society tends to let them say what they please, secure in the knowledge that they can't do much to promote any eccentric ideas they might have. Figure again with Zimmerman, a widower who lives in La Belle, Fla., with his daughter and son-in-law. He still gives an occasional lecture, teaches swimming and experiments with coaching techniques. Last summer he wrote a letter to the U.S. Olympic Committee, encouraging American swimmers to grow longer fingernails for better pull in the water. He suggested training exercises that would bend the feet back and thus improve leg drive. He even proposed grafting skin between the swimmers' fingers to give their hands a webbed-foot effect. He's still awaiting a reply from the USOC.

But lately Zimmerman has been more concerned with his own training regimen. His day commences when his son-in-law drives him the six miles from their cramped trailer home to the Caloosahatchee River, where he paddles his 16-foot canoe for three or four hours. Zimmerman's goal is to make a solo crossing of Lake Okeechobee when he turns 100 in December of next year. He figures it will take him that long to get into condition for the 35-mile paddle. "It'll sound great to say I've done it at 100, won't it?" he says. "I do a lot of crazy things, and this is just the most recent."

Before deciding that Zimmerman is indeed off his rocker, keep in mind that he isn't your ordinary, run-of-the-mill nonagenarian marathon canoeist. Between 1904 and 1914 Zimmerman won a total of 23 Canadian national swimming and diving championships. One year he took first place in the 50-, 100- and 220-yard freestyle and in fancy diving, and placed second in the underwater swim—all in a single night. Admittedly, that was a while ago, but like his boyhood hero, the physical culturist Bernarr Macfadden, Zimmerman has remained an amazing physical specimen. He has never indulged in alcohol or tobacco, and with his taut bronze skin and a chest the size of a beer keg, he looks as if he could swim across Lake Okeechobee. He has made the canoe trip three times before, at ages 84, 85 and 88. The most recent of those crossings, his fastest, took him nearly 15 hours, during which time he made 30,000 strokes with his paddle. He estimates his next crossing will take 20 hours, which would still be a day at the beach compared with the voyages he used to make.

For example, in 1924, at age 42, Zimmerman canoed from New York City to Louisville. "I paddled 142 miles upstream on the Hudson to Albany, where I connected with the Erie Canal," he says. "I then went the 350 miles to Lake Erie, paddled about 60 miles down the shore of the lake, toted my canoe eight miles overland to Chautauqua Lake and headed down the Allegheny River and into the Ohio. The Allegheny and Ohio were so convoluted that the trip I'd estimated at 1,300 miles turned out to be 1,700."

When he was 24, Zimmerman and a friend decided to shoot all the rapids on the 185-mile stretch of the St. Lawrence between Kingston, Ontario and Montreal. A DESPERATE CANOE TRIP—MAN MIGHT JUST AS WELL TRY TO GO THROUGH A SAUSAGE MACHINE was the way one newspaper described the pair's assault on the world-renowned but, because of the advent of the St. Lawrence Seaway, no longer extant Long Sault Rapids. "As we approached those rapids people on piers yelled at us to come ashore. Some even threw ropes," Zimmerman recalls, "but the river was smooth as a millpond, and we were blissfully ignorant. Suddenly we hit a 10-foot wave. We went into it at about 20 mph, and there began 12 miles of fiendish waves, rocks and whirlpools.

"The next day we found out that a local had telephoned Cornwall, Ontario authorities to report on two darned fools who were surely drowned. The Cornwall people called Montreal and found that boatmen had picked up two paddles but no bodies. Thirty years later when I visited Cornwall they were still talking about the two young fools who shot the rapids way back when."

That was in 1906. Zimmerman was then living in Montreal, where, while working full time as a draftsman, he made his name as an athlete. In addition to his swimming and diving feats, he held membership on seven national championship teams—baseball, football, basketball, water polo, war-canoeing, bowling and hockey—in one year, but he admits he was merely a substitute on some of them.

"In those days you didn't have to compete for just one club," he explains. "I performed for whichever club was the best in each sport. I used to train for three events almost every night."

The Boston Red Sox thought enough of Zimmerman as a pitcher to give him a shot, but he broke his arm playing hockey shortly before the tryout. He also won amateur bowling tournaments all over the eastern U.S. and led Canada's best water-polo team ever, the Montreal Swimming Club, to 51 straight victories between 1905 and 1912. For most of those years Zimmerman was Montreal's No. 1 scorer and enforcer.

"Back then you could hold a man under water so long that they'd have to lay him on the side of the pool to recover," he says. "Sometimes players would try to sneak into the water before their penalty period was up. When I caught them I just held 'em under for a minute or two with a scissors hold."

While playing with the Montreal swim club, Zimmerman represented Canada at two Olympics, despite being born "somewhere around Chicago" and never becoming a Canadian citizen. "They never asked, and I never said anything," he says. At the 1908 Games in London, Zimmerman remembers finishing "about 10th" in the diving and getting "soundly licked" in the 100. Charlie Daniels, the greatest swimmer of the era and the perfector of the American crawl, won the gold medal in the 100 that year. "Charlie stepped up to the pool with a cigarette hanging from his mouth," says Zimmerman. "When the starter called, 'On your marks,' he took one last puff. At 'Get set' he tossed the cigarette aside—and then he won going away."

Zimmerman never won an Olympic medal—at least not of the gold, silver or bronze variety—but he came close at the Stockholm Games in 1912. He finished fifth in springboard diving, despite competing on the final day with a badly sprained ankle and, he says, "making more mistakes than a dog has fleas. I didn't have a coach—never did. As a consolation prize the King of Sweden presented me with a hard-luck medal."

Zimmerman didn't compete in any swimming events at Stockholm. "By that time they'd gone way by me," he-recalls, "especially my roommate, George Hodgson." Canada's only Olympic swimming champion, Hodgson set five world records in Stockholm, in part thanks to Zimmerman. "I had shown George the crawl," he says. "He used it only for the first two lengths and the last one in the 1,500, but he still won easily. Nobody thought you could swim that stroke for more than 400 yards. Too exhausting to bring both hands out of the water. Impossible, they said." Over the years Zimmerman's swimming protègès would include several world and U.S. and Canadian national record holders, as well as Mike Peppe, the legendary Ohio State coach.

Zimmerman left Montreal for good in 1915 and headed for Chicago in a canoe with $7.50. That was the first of a half-dozen times he would find himself broke. "I was always ready to quit a job to do nothing," he says, meaning he was never one to bypass a chance to pick up some easy cash or have a good time. In 1927, in Miami, he billed himself as "The Masked Marvel" to drum up publicity and entrants for a 20-mile swim with a $500 first prize. He won and didn't have to reveal his identity, but he never got the money. One time, in Joplin, Mo., a man bet Zimmerman that he couldn't swim 150 yards with his feet tied together and both hands bound behind his back. "That was the easiest hundred I ever made," Zimmerman says.

But he saved his best stunts for the movies. In 1915 John Williamson, a pioneer in the development of underwater motion pictures, offered him a job as a double on the original English version of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. In one scene Zimmerman had to stage a fight on a yardarm 65 feet above the water and then get knocked off. "It was good pay," he says, "and we got $25 extra every time we had to go down in a self-contained diving suit." Soon, Zimmerman was Williamson's assistant in charge of all underwater work.

Zimmerman worked on nine films, including Wet Gold, the 1917 version of Treasure Island and The Submarine Eye. His final movie was based on another Jules Verne work, The Mysterious Island, and starred Lionel Barrymore. It was shot 60 miles southwest of Nassau in 1926, the year of the Great Hurricane that claimed 114 lives in the Miami area and reduced the city to rubble.

"Six of us were on a 60-footer that was anchored in 18 feet of water, about 100 yards from the photo barge, a much larger vessel," Zimmerman says. "With no radio on location, we had no way of knowing a storm was coming. When the wind picked up to 40 mph, we put out seven anchors. The photo barge put out 14. Suddenly the wind went up to 60 mph. The barge crew tried to reach us in their dinghies, but the wind made it impossible. There was a lifeboat tied to our stern, but when I returned from putting four more anchors out, I saw that the wind had destroyed it.

"A couple of hours later the wind changed direction and reached its maximum velocity of 120 mph. We were yawing back and forth like a horizontal pendulum and getting closer and closer to the barge. Skip [Williamson] and I knew that if the barge hit us, it would break us into kindling wood. Our only hope was to cut some of its anchor lines so that it could swing away from us.

"I jumped overboard and headed for the barge. Fortunately, my water-polo days had given me good training in breath control and survival in rough waters. I cut the lines, but not before being washed over the bow and slammed into a tower on the deck. Although I felt no pain at the time, I later found out that I had broken several ribs.

"Somehow I made it back to the boat, and we rode out the storm. However, our main props—a sunken galleon and an enormous fake octopus—were both destroyed. We had to finish the picture on land in Hollywood with some very unreal underwater scenes.

"I mended in Miami, and three months later I received my prize possession, an Elgin pocket watch inscribed PRESENTED TO BOB ZIMMERMAN, FOR HIS HISTORIC SWIMMING ON SEPTEMBER 17, 1926, SAVING LIVES AND MUCH EQUIPMENT—GRATEFULLY, SAM GOLDWYN."

Shortly afterward, Zimmerman began his stint as a lecturer. Between lecture tours he lived in a wooden bungalow on Andros Island in the Bahamas and roamed the ocean floor in search of sunken treasure, coral and anything else of value. Most of what he found he sold; the rest either became part of his lecture exhibit or ended up in the Hall of Ocean Life at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.

Another of Zimmerman's projects was building a circular underwater house off Key Largo, Fla. in 1946. He was nearly finished when a tornado wiped it out. "It had 16 windows and would have had the most beautiful view in the world," he says. "I would have charged admission."

That's about the only time nature has gotten the best of Zimmerman. The smart money says it won't happen again—not even on Lake Okeechobee.