Gus Sundstrom is a former NYAC swimming instructor, water polo coach and a 1992 NYAC Hall of Fame inductee. Sundstrom taught swimming at the NYAC for over 50 years and coached the NYAC’s water polo team to a gold medal at the 1904 Olympic games in St Louis.
Sundstrom was born in 1859 in Brooklyn, NY. Little is known about his childhood other than that his father was a captain of a ship, which explains Sundstrom’s lifelong affinity for water. One story – perhaps apocryphal – maintains that his father, in an attempt to teach his son to swim, tied a rope around Sundstrom’s waist and threw him over the ship when he was only two years old.
With the construction of the first City House in 1885, the Club had the finest athletic facilities in the country. All that was needed were instructors and professionals to train NYAC athletes. Thus, Gus Sundstrom was hired as the Club’s swimming instructor in 1885 at the age of 26. Sundstrom’s reputation for remarkable feats of endurance and open water swimming preceded himself. He is believed to have been the first person to swim around Manhattan, doing so in 11 hours and four minutes. Notably, around the time that he was hired, Sundstrom was arrested for swimming in the East River and was held on $300 bail. He pleaded ignorance of the law, which prohibited public exhibitions on the Sabbath.
In addition to his responsibilities at the Club, Sundstrom also served as the Supervisor of Swimming Instruction for the NYC Board of Education. For that reason, it was said that Sundstrom was responsible for 100,000 people, including thousands of New York City schoolchildren, learning how to swim.
One such student was George L. Rheims, a passenger on the Titanic. While the ship was sinking, Rheims dove into the water and swam as far away from it as possible to avoid being dragged down with it. Rheims survived the ordeal and credited Sundstrom with saving his life: “Only last year I had perfected my swimming with lessons from Gus Sundstrom at the Club, and never until that moment did I realize I was such a strong swimmer,” said Rheims.
Sundstrom passed away from heart disease at the age of 78.