Chicago did not land the Olympics, but our city was home to one of the greatest Olympians. His name was Johnny Weissmuller. He was a swimmer. And he never lost.
There always was controversy over where and when Johnny was born. The best guess is Romania in 1904. But he spent a good chunk of his childhood in Chicago, growing up in the old German neighborhood near Lincoln and Webster. After a short spell at Lane Tech, he dropped out of school and went to work in various odd jobs.
Johnny had started swimming to improve his physique. When he was 15 he landed a spot on the swim team at the Illinois Athletic Club. One story says he practiced by doing laps in the river around Goose Island.
His first competition was the 1921 Amateur Athletic Championships. Though only a rookie, he won every event he entered, with ease. Over the next few years, each swim meet was the same thing--Weissmuller against the field. The field always lost.
He set speed records, broke them, then broke them again. At the 1924 Olympics he won three gold medals, and shared a bronze as a member of their water polo team. In the process he outraced the legendary Duke Kahanamoku, for years recognized as The World's Greatest Swimmer.
But that honor belonged to Johnny Weissmuller now. Back home, he continued winning any competition he entered. Bookies stopped taking bets on his races. The only action they'd accept was on how much time Johnny might shave off his latest world's record.
He was at the Olympics again in 1928. He entered two freestyle events and claimed two more golds. By now Johnny had won 52 amateur championships and set 67 different records. He had never been beaten in formal competition. With nothing left to prove, he retired from swimming.
The scrawny teen had built himself into a 6-foot-4 hunk. For a while Johnny modeled for a bathing suit company. Then, in 1932, he went to Hollywood to star in the movie Tarzan the Ape Man. The film was an unexpected hit, and Weissmuller went on to make a total of 20 Tarzan stories.
He was a terrible actor, and he knew it. Still, being Tarzan had its perks.
In 1958, years after his last movie, Weissmuller was at a golf outing in Cuba when his party was suddenly captured by rifle-toting rebels. Johnny smiled at them, then let loose his famous movie jungle-yell. The rebels stopped, smiled back, and began calling out "Tarzan! Tarzan!" Then they gave Johnny an armed escort back to his hotel.
Johnny went through five wives and a lot of money in his life, but never lost his charm or sense of humor. In his later years he wound up in the traditional sinecure of the down-and-out athlete, working as a greeter at a Las Vegas casino. Chicago's greatest Olympian died in 1984.