Splash to the past

Tryouts for the '36 Olympics held at Rocky Point

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Like the park’s jingle theme song said, it was a Rocky Point tradition because it’s summertime again. For well over five decades and for generations of New Englanders, the pool at Rocky Point Park was the place for families to go to beat the summertime heat.

But a recent rediscovery has put an Olympic-sized twist on the Olympic-sized pool.

Tucked along the right side of the road that was the main entrance to the amusement park, and situated just above the area’s longest beach, the park’s saltwater pool was built well before the 1938 hurricane, which partially destroyed it. The pool differed from standard pools in that it drew and filtered salt water from Narragansett Bay for swimming. The water’s salinity and temperature that matched that of the bay was described as an odd experience by many swimmers.

The massive concrete structure eventually had a recessed area in the middle of the pool that provided a deeper area for swimming and diving. Diving boards of various heights were placed there for swimmers to climb and jump from.

Following the 1938 hurricane that decimated Rocky Point, the pool and the park sat unused as owners decided whether to rebuild. When the park eventually reopened in 1948, it was decided that the pool would be rebuilt. It reopened for the 1949 season.

The pool featured large bathhouses for changing, and before the hurricane, was lined with multiple bleachers for patrons to sit and get some sun, watch family members splash around, or attract large crowds of spectators for events, such as diving and swimming competitions held at the pool.

By 1985, however, the pool was in need of major repairs and renovations, and the decision was made to close and fill in the pool for good. But it was a recently rediscovered series of photographs of an event held at the pool that has added another historic aspect to the long and storied history of the park.

Collaborating together, Dan Geagan of the Warwick Planning Department and an avid Rocky Point fan, and George Shuster, a Rocky Point Foundation board member and legal counsel, recently found and positively identified a picture of the pool from July 12, 1936. The image depicts seven swimmers in old-fashioned body suits diving headfirst into the pool as a huge crowd of spectators looks on.

What was this event?

Shuster and Geagan’s research led them to tryouts for the 1936 Summer Olympics held that August in Berlin, also known as Games of the XI Olympiad or, by a worse term, “The Nazi Olympics.”

“Once we found and identified the picture and what it was, I really started digging into the history of the event and started reading any old newspaper articles I could find,” said Geagan.

According to multiple documents provided by Geagan, the tryouts were held at Rocky Point from July 10 through 12, 1936. The meet consisted of competitions including the 100-meter freestyle, 100-meter backstroke, 200-meter breaststroke, 400-meter free style, and the 1,500-meter freestyle along with semifinals and finals.

According to a recap in the New York Times, hundreds of competitors from across the country attended the three-day event.

“They’re super interesting characters. I think for me, the one I thought was most interesting was Adolph Kiefer, who went on to the Olympics and eventually met Hitler there,” said Geagan, adding that Kiefer went on to win a gold medal in Berlin. “He went from the Rocky Point pool, and three weeks later he was in Germany and met Hitler and Hermann Göring. He has a great quote about the meeting with Hitler, saying, ‘I should have thrown him in the pool and drowned him. It would have saved everyone a lot of trouble.’”

For those brief three days, there was a cast of characters from all different walks of life and areas of the country who had traveled for days and, for some, weeks, for the opportunity to move on the Olympics to fight for national pride.

According to Geagan, the competition was also one for the sports history books. At the trials, John Herbert Higgins, a Providence native who become the head coach of the Navy men’s swimming team and was twice inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame, established a new American and world record of 2:44.1 for the 200-meter fly. While he went on to finish fourth in the Olympics, his record achieved at Rocky Point would stand for the next 12 years.

Other swimmers went on to the winner’s platform in Berlin to claim their medals. Paul Wolf of Los Angeles, who placed fourth at Rocky Point, won a silver medal in the men’s 4 x 200 meters freestyle relay. Ralph Flanagan of Los Alamitos, California won a silver medal. Jack Medica of Seattle won a gold medal in the 400-meter freestyle and set a new Olympic record during the contest and also went on to earn two silver medals. Pictures and stories of their accomplishments made the front page of newspapers across the country and featured prominently next to stories of those about Jesse Owens, known as “perhaps the greatest and most famous athlete in track and field history.”

The discovery of the photo and the swimming events that surround it, according to both Geagan and Shuster, shows just how versatile the park and its history are. Not only was the park a place for fun, food and rides but it was a place where history was made and dreams were realized and still can be.

“Once we found the picture and I was reading through all of the articles associated with it I said, ‘How can no one remember this?’ It was hiding in plain sight,” said Geagan. “It’s fun to see where everyone came from and what they went on to do. This is local history at its greatest.”

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