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."