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The story of Fishtown's 'Forgotten Olympian': A swimmer who refused to salute Hitler

The 1930s equivalent of Michael Phelps was from Fishtown, and he might have been robbed of a silver medal at the 1936 Olympics.

Peter Fick in New Jersey months after the Olympic games.
Peter Fick in New Jersey months after the Olympic games.Read moreInquirer Archives

Marching toward Adolf Hitler, the American athletes prepared their alternate salute.

At the opening ceremonies of the 1936 Olympic Games, the Americans were the last of the visiting delegations in the Parade of Nations, anchored by the hometown Germans.

Hitler stood in his brown uniform, facing the athletes over the field like a conqueror. Some who marched past succumbed to the then-German custom: March straight, swivel their heads to face Hitler, and raise their right arms, holding them out straight, fingers pressed together, pointing toward the dictator.

But the Americans, including a swimmer from Fishtown, had another plan.

More than 100,000 people packed the stadium in Berlin that August for the kickoff of the 11th Olympiad. The crowd was raucous, part of a show of strength, as the two weeks of international competition opened.

Nearly 4,500 athletes from 50 nations took part in the opening ceremony. The U.S. delegation was surpassed in size only by the German.

American reporters claimed French and Austrians, among others, were too quick to oblige Hitler, including dipping their flags to the ruler and giving the Nazi salute as they passed. The German people returned the salute, cheering loudly at each country's obedience.

When the Americans marched, they turned to face Hitler. But instead of outstretching their arms, they removed their straw hats, and pulled them close to their hearts. The flag bearer refused to dip the flag in Hitler's direction.

A hissing sound rose from the crowd. The sound of vibrating lips pursed together.

The Nazis blew raspberries.

A native Philadelphian absorbed the brunt of the backlash. Some believe the 1930s equivalent of Michael Phelps may have been cheated out of a medal in retaliation.


In an Olympics remembered for Jesse Owens' breaking a world record and changing how the world perceived an entire race's athletic prowess, the perceived slight of a poor Polish immigrant from Fishtown has largely been lost to history.

Peter Fick was one of Philadelphia's first swimmers to win international fame. In 1934, he broke the 100-meter freestyle record set at the 1932 Olympics by Johnny Weissmuller, remembered by millions for playing the title role in the Tarzan movies, and won his first of six national swimming titles.

Like many other children of immigrant parents in the 1920s, Fick left school early to earn money, moving safes and pianos for a living, according to the International Swimming Hall of Fame. But he got laid off. The Philadelphia Swimming Club member asked the coach if he could become a competitive swimmer, but was turned down due to his muscular physique. So he went to another club.

Fick started practicing with the Philadelphia Elks, also known as the Philadelphia Athletic Club, before moving up to the much stronger New York Club, where he gravitated toward the sprint races, ultimately earning the nickname "America's Fastest Swimmer."

He won the national Amateur Athletics Union championships for sprint swimming in 1935 and 1936, on his way to the '36 Olympics.

‘Forgotten Olympian’

By the time Fick reached the Games, he was the man every swimmer wanted to beat.

At the time, Japan largely monopolized the top-speed swimming events. But Weissmuller and then Fick held claim to the 100-meter freestyle record. In 1935, the Japanese swimmers challenged the Americans to a dual meet, with intentions of beating Fick and taking back the 100-meter freestyle crown. But they proved unsuccessful.

Riding his wave of victories, Fick entered the '36 Games with high expectations.

In the medal round of the 100-meter freestyle, he swam in the center lane.

Flanked on both sides by Japanese champions, and under the watchful gaze of Hitler, he launched into the water.

After trading leads with his rivals throughout the contest, the competitors were headed for a close finish.

When the race concluded, controversy emerged.

This much is certain: Hungary's Ferenc Csik shocked the world by winning the gold medal.

Who came in second is still in dispute.

According to the Swimming Hall of Fame, photos showed Fick outtouching his Japanese rivals, which would have earned him the silver medal. But based on poolside stopwatches, the German judges awarded Fick fifth place.

Kevin Frazer, Fick's nephew, said he remembered an issue with a watch.

"The timer broke, and he lost," Frazer said. "But it's OK, he did hold, at one time, the second-best world record of all time."

Shown the photos, the judges stuck to their decision.

Fick would later be described in a Swimming Hall of Fame video as the "Forgotten Olympian." For decades, Olympic enthusiasts, swimming historians and Fick family members have wondered whether the American refusal to salute Hitler cost him a medal.

In the following years, Fick prepared himself for redemption in the next Games, originally set for 1940 in Tokyo. But amid the largest and deadliest conflict in human history, the 12th Olympiad was canceled.

If the losses bothered Fick, those close to him never noticed.

After serving in the Navy during World War II, where he taught officers how to swim, Fick was a radio actor in New York, and a well-known character. He even appeared in cigarette ads in newspapers, including the Inquirer.

He was married several times, and settled in Miami in the 1950s, teaching swimming and administering recreational programs at hotels. In 1978, he was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame.

He died two years later, in August 1980, at age 66. His obituary in the Inquirer took issue with the outcome of the famous race that robbed him of his legacy.

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