Ernst Karl Vierkoetter

Champion, Pioneer & Contributor

Advertised as the greatest sporting event in aquatic history, in 1927 the Canadian National Exhibition (CNE) joined with the William Wrigley Company of Canada to stage a 21-mile race for a total purse of $50,000, with $30,000 for the winner. George Young had been the only finisher and winner the year before in the Wrigley-sponsored race across the Catalina Channel and, consequently, was set by the local Canadian pundits as the favourite to win the 1927 CNE swim. The pundits, however, had not reviewed the contestants sufficiently well to realize that Ernst Vierkoetter of Cologne, Germany, on 30 August 1926, had become the fastest person to cross the English Channel - beating all others by almost two hours with his France-England time of 12:40. A record that was to stand for another 20 years before it was broken !

At the time of that first CNE swim, Vierkoetter, the son of a German baker, was 26 years old. Apart from his Channel success in the previous year, he had won many events in Europe. His coach, Erich Barensche, accompanied him to Toronto to prepare him for the CNE swim.

174 swimmers and national champions, representing 30 nationalities, had entered this 1927 open event which was due to start at 8:30 am. It was a beautiful, cloudless morning for the start, but that appearance belied the fact that the water temperature in the lake away from the breakwater ranged from 44 to 48F (6.7 to 8.9C). The course was in the form of a triangle. The contestants started from the eastern end of the CNE waterfront, directly in front of the Princes' Gates, and were to swim one mile west inside the protection of the breakwater. At this point, they would enter the lake through a gap in the breakwater and swim 3 miles to a buoy marking the apex of the triangle, and would then swim 3 miles back to the starting point, so completing 7 miles. The race involved three loops of this course - a total of 21 miles. The cold water took is toll on many of the swimmers in the early stages of the race. It forced the favourite, George Young, to retire after 5.5 miles. By mid afternoon, only three swimmers remained in the race - Vierkoetter, Georges Michel of France, and William Erickson from New York, USA. Vierkoetter won the race in 11:45, Michel took the $7,500 was second place in 16:45, and Erickson was third in 18:45 with a prize of $2,500.

Due to the black grease that he used during his swims, Ernst was dubbed the "Black Shark" and was reportedly the idol of the crowd after his CNE win.

On the left, Ernst is shown in a July 7, 1928 image in the Montreal, La Presse.

In 1928, the CNE race was shortened to 15 miles; however, the water was reported as extremely cold and none of the 199 entrants finished the course. The prize money was distributed to those unsuccessful contestants making the best showing. George Michel of France was accorded the winner, having completed 12.125 miles in 11 hours 12 minutes 57 seconds. Ernst Vierkoetter was second having covered 12 miles at a much faster pace in 7:39:37. Louis Mathias of Long Island, NY, was third covering 8.375 miles in 7:05:00. Eleven other swimmers covered 5 miles or more, with William Erickson of New York taking fourth place with a distance of 7.5 miles in a time of 4:58:42. Interestingly, Ernst was listed as Germany for that 1928 race; however, the next year his name appeared on the programme with "Toronto" as his home - he, again, took second place in the race that was 15 miles with a time of 8:18:31:39.3, with Ed. Keating from New York taking first place in 8:18:13.1 - the times being recorded to 0.1 seconds that year. The following year, 1930, is the last time his name appears among the finishers when he took fifth place in 8:30:10.4, for the 15 mile race, behind the winner, Marvin Nelson of Fort Dodge, Iowa, who finished in 7:43:36.2.

Ernst the Musician
Like his brother Franz, who was a student in music and well on his way to becoming a concert pianist, music was a large part of Ernst's life. His family reported, that through his life, Ernst's greatest enjoyment was to play for hours on his piano the music of Mozart, Bach, Beethoven, and all of the classical composers. He played with professional skill, although this was generally unknown beyond his family and close friends.

Ernst The Academic
He had attended Koln (Cologne) University for two years where he had been studying for the Ministry. He was an excellent linguist and was fluent in three Languages (German, French, English), as well as having an excellent grounding in Greek and Latin.

It was neither his swimming nor his music that interrupted his university training. The interruption became necessary when his father suddenly died and it became necessary for Ernst to manage the family bakery business while his older brother continued in a lifetime career of music. His bakery experiences were not wasted, as Ernst became an expert pastry chef and throughout his life applied his skills in the family kitchen.

Ernst The Coach
It is a little-known fact, confirmed by his son-in-law, that Ernst had taught Marilyn Bell some of her swimming skills . . . before Marilyn was coached by Gus Ryder. He opened a swimming instruction school and from 1955-1965 he provided swim training at St Alban's Boys Club and, until the time of his death on 13 December 1967, he acted as coach of the Baraca Club, as an official of the CNE Swims, and was Swim Director for East York.

Ernst The Canadian
Ernst Vierkoetter did not return to Germany. His earnings from the 1927 swim represented a substantial sum. Ernst's daughter and son-in-law report that, after the 1927 swim, Ernst was invited to take-up Canadian citizenship. They believe that Ernst and his wife, Else, became Canadians around 1930. He decided to take up residence in Toronto, and, among other things, he bought a home and educated his daughter to be a doctor. Both Ernst and Else became active members in their (Morningside) Presbyterian Church in Swansea, with Ernst serving as a Church Elder and in teaching Sunday School.

With his love of swimming-instruction and music, it is appropriate that he and his wife are buried in Park Lawn Cemetery in Etobicoke where similarly-famous fellow-Torontonians, Gus Ryder and blind Jazz musician Jeff Healey, are buried.

During his life it was known that Ernst had only one eye - with some stories that he had lost his right eye during World War I; however, this was quite incorrect as he had been born too late to serve in that war. His eye was actually lost as a child when he was accidentally struck by a knitting needle. Very few that knew him realized he had an artificial right eye throughout his adult life.

Ernst`s wife (Else Doebler) died on 5 December 1992, and had also been a champion swimmer in her youth in Germany. Consequently, it is not surprising that, after teaching his grandchildren to swim in their very early years, all became excellent swimmers and one, Karen Le Gresley held Canadian records at age 15, was a member of the Canadian Swimming Team at the 1972 Munich Olympics, and in 2004 was inducted into the University of Toronto's Athletic Hall of Fame - reflecting Ernst's swimming and musical talents . . . and more.
Ernst is shown in the photograph on the left at the 1952 CNE 10-mile marathon with the winner, Cliff Lumsdon, and Forbes Norris. The photograph is taken from Ron McAllister's book "Swim to Glory".

Ernst Vierkoetter was inducted into the International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame (IMSHOF) in 1978.

The temperatures reported above for the 1927 race were taken from Bill Leveridge's book. Conrad Wennerberg, on the other hand, reports the 1927 swim as 51-55F and he indicates that it was the 1928 swim that was 44-48F. Wennerberg's figures would be more in keeping with Vierkoetter's performance in the two races.

Information in this Mini Biography is extracted from two books - Conrad Wennerberg's Wind, Waves and Sunburn and Bill Leveridge's Fair Sport,
along with personal details provided by his son-in-law Balfour Le Gresley.

Additional material or photographs of Ernst Vierkoetter would be greatly appreciated. Please contact the Web Master.

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Created: 6th June 2004
Last Updated: 1st September 2013