Craig Porter, Freestyle Champion

Published In:
Ypsilanti Gleanings, Fall 2012,
Fall 2012
Original Images:



Author: Peg Porter

Several months ago I found a message in my voice mailbox from Lauren at the Ypsilanti Historical Society. She told me she had received a call from a Scott Porter who thought I might be his cousin. She asked for his telephone number so she could forward it to me. I had not been in contact with my Porter cousin for over 30 years and was anxious to talk to him. I knew that his sister, Mary Ruth, had died tragically as a result of early-onset Alzheimer’s less than five years ago. I called Scott that same afternoon. Scott had “found me” through computer searches. He had read some of my Gleanings articles which convinced him that I was, indeed, his cousin. He then found the YHS website and telephone number. A number of phone calls and email exchanges followed. We shared family stories and I provided additional information on the Porter family tree.

We talked about the Johnny Weissmuller story contained in the article that follows and his dad’s experience as a State Champion swimmer. We were both interested in trying to document the story we knew and began to assemble what information we had. Scott shared photographs and we both did considerable research. The story that follow is the result of our collaboration. It is dedicated to the memory of Craig Porter and his daughter, Mary Ruth.

His high school nickname was “Fish.” He was tall, with long arms and legs, broad shoulders and slim hips: the ideal body type for swimming. He was the second son of Evelyn Havelock Porter and Ellen Craig Porter, both immigrants to the United States from Canada. Craig Porter was born in Webster Township in 1912 while his father was herdsman at the Brookside Dairy.

When Craig was still quite young, the family moved to Ypsilanti where they opened a small restaurant in their home at the corner of Brower Street (now College Place) and Washtenaw Avenue, just a few blocks from the campus of the Michigan Normal. Craig attended the Laboratory School. When the new Roosevelt High School opened in the fall of 1925, both Craig and his older brother Don enrolled. At the time of its opening, Roosevelt was a state-of-the art high school. The ground floor had a swimming pool, shower room and locker rooms.

By the time Craig began high school he was already a swimmer. There were few pools, no community pools and, unless your family had a lake cottage, your opportunities to swim were very limited. So where and how did Craig Porter develop the skills that would make him a State Champion swimmer in a few short years? Perhaps he attended Camp Hayo-Want-Ha, a YMCA camp on Torch Lake. Don, his brother, spent several summers at the camp. It’s also possible that Laboratory School students had access to the college pool, a few short blocks from his home. Finally the Porter brothers had friends whose families had cottages, on Portage or Base Lake.

Although he expressed interest in both baseball and track as a high school freshman, he joined the Roosevelt Swim Team. His first meet took place March 2, 1927 against River Rouge. Three days later he participated in the Inter-Scholastic meet at the University of Michigan. Craig was rewarded with his first varsity letter that year, the only freshman class member to receive one.

He swam freestyle 40, 50 and 100 yard events as well as the 240 yard relay. He set school records, only to break his own records. In March of 1929, Craig led the Roosevelt swimmers to a Class B State Championship, winning first in the 50 and 100 yard freestyle as well as swimming to a first place on the 240 yard relay. In 1930, the Roosevelt team finished fourth, winning four meets and losing only two. The two they lost were to class A schools. The Rough Rider, Roosevelt’s school newspaper, described him as “Roosevelt’s freestyle artist.”

In his senior year the Rough Rider paid tribute to its champion swimmer. “…Craig Porter, an athlete who has forgone the pleasure of playing football, basketball or baseball that he might excel in a sport he likes best and so to add another laurel to the fame of Roosevelt High School.” He was also recognized for his leadership as Captain of the swim team for three years.

In the spring of 1930, a tennis team was organized at Roosevelt. The team’s coach was faculty member, Leonard Menzi. Menzi would later become the school’s principal, serving in that capacity for nearly 30 years. Craig showed up for the first team practice. Although he was only able to play tennis for several months before his graduation, he was awarded a varsity letter in that sport.

While Craig Porter was attending high school and developing his skills as a competitive swimmer, Johnny Weissmuller was on his way to becoming one of the country’s most well known swimmers and later the movie’s second Tarzan. Weissmuller was born in 1904 in Romania. His birthplace would later create some controversy when he was named to the U.S. Olympic Team in 1924. While still a child, he swam regularly in Lake Michigan. As a teenager he began swimming with the Illinois Athletic Club. Later he would win three gold medals in freestyle events at the 1924 Games and two more gold medals in the 1928 games.

In addition, he played on the U.S. Water Polo teams in both 1924 and 1928. The teams earned a bronze medal at the Paris and Amsterdam games. Weissmuller parlayed his success in the Olympics into first a modeling career and then an acting career. He played Tarzan in 12 movies to become the best known of the screen Tarzans.

There is a story that is well known to members of the Porter family. Friends and classmates of Craig Porter knew the story as well. The story is simply this: Craig Porter once raced Johnny Weissmuller and Porter won. How could this have happened? Weissmuller was nearly ten years older than Porter, an Olympian and world record holder. How could a teenager, from a small high school in Michigan, beat the man who would become Tarzan and who frequently boasted that he never lost a race?

Craig Porter, unlike Weissmuller, was not a bragger or boaster. To the contrary, he was quiet and never talked about himself. If you had questioned Craig about whether the story was true, he would nod his head “yes” but would not go on to say when or where. There are at least two times when such a race could have occurred. While still in high school, Craig was a member of the Seagulls, the swim team of the Detroit Yacht Club. We do not know how he was recruited for this team nor how he made regular trips to Detroit to practice and race. Swimming with the Seagulls did provide him with more professional coaching and a higher level of competition. The competition included members of the 1928 U.S. Olympic swim team who trained at the Club. Could Porter have beat Weissmuller in practice?

There is at least one other time when the two swimmers paths may have crossed. Weissmuller returned to Michigan in the summer of 1930 with his water show. He was a star attraction at the Eastern Michigan Water Carnival in Bay City. Weissmuller’s show toured the country and attracted large audiences who wanted to see the man who won five gold medals in the Olympic Games. Often Weissmuller would challenge the best local swimmers to a race. Was there such a race in Bay City or elsewhere in Michigan? Did, in fact, Craig Porter beat Weissmuller. Did the Weissmuller publicists spread the word that Weissmuller was tired from traveling and therefore it wasn’t a valid race?

The search for documentation of the Weissmuller-Porter race continues. The author and other family members believe the story is true. Should any Gleanings readers have information to share, please contact Peg Porter at the Ypsilanti Historical Society. Perhaps the more interesting question is: could Craig Porter have been a member of the United States Olympic Team in 1932?

His times in the freestyle kept dropping through his senior year in high school (1930). The major barrier to achieving Olympic status was money. At the time of Craig’s high school graduation, the country was plunging into what we now call The Great Depression. Money was always tight around the Porter household. Now with fewer people having money to spend on a restaurant meal, money became even more of an issue. Craig’s parents were able to provide their two sons with the basic necessities, primarily food and shelter. The boys were expected to work to earn money for any “extras.” Don worked steadily from his early teens primarily with Lamb’s grocery. He did not participate in high school athletics by choice. He wanted his own car (a convertible), a speed boat and an occasional trip. He was able to earn enough to get them.
Craig, on the other hand, devoted his time and energy to swimming. The University of Michigan offered Craig a tuition award if he were to agree to attend college and join the swimming team. This was not a “full-ride” by any means. He would need to pay for books, fees and transportation. The resources were not there. He would have to work (if he could find a job) to pay for all other expenses.

Swimming is a demanding sport. It requires focus, discipline and many, many hours in the pool. To add a full class schedule, plus a job would be daunting. Had he been able to swim for Michigan and assuming he had remained healthy, he likely would have made it to the Olympic swim trials and perhaps made the U.S. Team. That was not to happen. Instead he alternated work with school and received a degree at Michigan State Normal College (now Eastern) in 1938. He met and later married another student, Doris Schroeder, in 1940. They would have a daughter and son, Mary Ruth and Scott. Craig would spend his working days in a lumber yard, retiring early because of chronic health problems. He died on Christmas Day, 1976.

The focus of this story is not lost opportunities, but to recognize one of Ypsilanti’s outstanding athletes or as the Roosevelt Rough Rider summed up his years in high school “…he is one of the greatest swimmers ever produced at Roosevelt.” That remained true until the Roosevelt High School closed in 1969.

(Peg Porter is the Assistant Editor of the Gleanings and regular contributor of articles.)


Photo Captions:

Photo 1: Craig Porter, Ypsilanti Roosevelt’s outstanding swimmer

Photo 2: Roosevelt’s 1930 Swim Team finished fourth in the State Meet

Photo 3: Detroit Yacht Club Seagulls patch worn by Craig

Photo 4: Swan dive at the Detroit Yacht Club – check that wingspan

Photo 5: Porter Women: left in front row - Craig’s mother Ellen Craig Porter; second from right in front row – sister in law Ruth Young Porter; far right in top row – Craig’s wife Doris Shroeder Porter

Photo 6: Porter brothers at family home – Don is left and Craig is at right

Photo 7: Craig Porter in his late 30’s

Photo 8: Porter cousins at Base Lake – Don’s kids were swimmers while Craig’s were not.