Michael Phelps would be in awe to see the more than 400 medals won by Freddy Leipziger over the years. And Leipziger earned them swimming competitively in six countries.
Phelps, of course, is the all-time Olympic champion with 22 swimming medals. So, you might ask, who is Freddy Leipziger?
For one thing, he’s a Sun City Summerlin resident. For another, he would easily have made the 1952 U.S. Olympics team, especially in the breaststroke. But he didn’t qualify only because he was not an American citizen at the time –– even though he was serving in the U.S. Army.
But now we’re getting ahead of the story.
Leipziger was only 4 when his parents departed Beuthen, then in Germany and now in Poland, in 1932 for Brazil. Adolf Hitler was on the rise at the time, and some German-Jewish families who were astute enough to understand what Hitler stood for made plans to leave while the leaving was good.
By age 9, Leipziger had taken advantage of his new world, a town called Niterói, which is just across the bay from the beaches of Ipanema in southern Rio de Janeiro. As Freddy’s son Mark explained it, “My father became a great swimmer due to where he lived. He learned to swim in the ocean.”
Between ages 9 and 20, Leipziger swam competitively and earned numerous medals in events that brought South American championships to Brazil. And he frequently competed in Argentina and Uruguay during those years.
“I was undefeated in breaststroke events, mostly short events like 50 and 100 meters, during that period,” Leipziger said.
He came to the U.S. in 1949, at age 21, and two years later was drafted into the Army.
“It was during the Korean War. They sent me to Fort Sam Houston in Texas to train for the Olympics, until they learned I was a citizen of Brazil,” Leipziger said with a chuckle. Still, he won a sizable number of medals competing against other Army teams.
Leipziger became a U.S. citizen in 1953, and the following year, he entered the University of Miami on a four-year swimming scholarship. He became captain of the university’s swim team and earned many more medals during college. Once again he was considered to be good enough for the Olympics, but by then he was in his late 20s, which was too old for the 1956 Games.
“The best Olympic swimmers are in their early 20s,” Leipziger explained.
In 1961 he came to Las Vegas and to an entirely new career. For the next 37 years he worked in some of the most prominent hotel/casinos on the Strip. During most of that period, from 1958 to 1988, he abandoned competitive swimming.
“My first job was as a bellman at the Sands,” he recalled. He moved on to become the bell captain at the International Hotel, which later became the Hilton, then to the earlier MGM, which later became Bally’s, and finally to the present MGM.
“During those years, I did favors as a bell captain for some of the most famous entertainers who ever performed in Las Vegas,” Leipziger said. He mentioned Barbra Streisand, Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr. and Dean Martin, among others.
“I did a number of favors for Elvis Presley and got to know him,” he added.
In 1988, Leipziger returned to competitive swimming. He joined Las Vegas Masters Swimming, which is composed of serious swimmers who participate on teams that compete in events at the highest levels.
“Under Las Vegas Masters, we competed all over the country,” he said. “I came in first and second in championships in such places as Indianapolis, Indiana and Austin, Texas. We competed in facilities at Stanford and at the University of California Santa Barbara.
“My last competition in Brazil was in the Brazilian championships five years ago, and I won five events.”
Leipziger, who recently turned 85, has competed in Denmark and Australia, in addition to North and South America. A torn rotator cuff in one shoulder ended his competitive swimming career two years ago.
But his daughter Dana commented proudly, “My father will always be a champion.”
Herb Jaffe was an op-ed columnist and investigative reporter for most of his 39 years at the Star-Ledger of Newark, N.J. His newest novel, “All For Nothing,” is now available. Contact him at email@example.com.