Growing up in the late 1800s, Charles Daniels found himself in a tough spot. His parents were divorced, so Daniels was raised by his single mom. As a teenager, he suffered from crippling anxiety.
But he found solace in two activities: swimming and Scouting.
Daniels went on to win eight Olympic medals, held world records in two freestyle swimming events, and was one of the early innovators of the front crawl, a swimming stroke now so common you’ll find it in a couple of the Swimming merit badge requirements.
Daniels wouldn’t have earned the Swimming merit badge — his experience in the Scouting movement pre-dated the creation of the BSA. But still, the principles and ideals of the movement that would later result in the formation of the Boy Scouts of America played a critical role in Daniels’ success, according to Michael Loynd, author of The Waterman, the meticulously researched new book about one of America’s least famous pioneer athletes.
“(Scouting) taught Charles a lot about taking charge of his own life and being a responsible adult,” Loynd says. “It was later noted by one of his swimming coaches how Scouting saved him.”
Active in the early days of Scouting
The Boy Scouts of America was established in 1910. But the seeds of the Scouting movement had begun spreading across the world years earlier.
BSA founder W.D. Boyce was inspired to create the BSA based on his experience with Robert Baden-Powell’s Boy Scout Association, now called simply The Scout Association, which is still the largest Scouting organization in the United Kingdom.
Scouting programs began popping up in the United States in the early 1900s. Ernest Thompson Seton’s Woodcraft Indians started in 1901. Daniel Carter Beard’s Sons of Daniel Boone started in 1905. Other early organizations included the Boy Scouts of the United States and the National Scouts of America.
Many of these early programs eventually dissolved or became part of the Boy Scouts of America.
One of those early organizations was called the National Sportsman’s Association, and that was the group with which Daniels would spend much of his time as a youth. (This organization is not related to the current National Sportsman Association, a Virginia-based hunting club established in 1975.)
Daniels’ mom was eager to find a way for her son to grow physically strong, mentally awake and morally straight, so she signed him up.
Same principles then as now
For several years, Daniels spent much of his free time learning to be self-sufficient. As time passed and his experiences grew, he gained more and more confidence.
“During the summers of 1900 to 1903, the boys would pitch camp in the Adirondacks for two months and engage in numerous Scouting and outdoor activities, far away from the hustle and bustle of city life,” Loynd says.
Scouting also allowed Daniels time to swim. Access to public swimming pools was not necessarily common back then, but in the Adirondacks, Daniels had time to hit the water almost every day.
In 1904, he became the first American to win an Olympic medal, earning three golds (in the 220-yard freestyle, the 440-yard freestyle and the 4X50-yard freestyle relay), one silver and one bronze in the St. Louis Olympics.
In 1908, he took home another gold and bronze from the London Games.
At one point or another in his career, he held every freestyle swimming record. He finished with 33 U.S. national championships.
The United States Olympic & Paralympic Museum credits Daniels as “catapulting the United States into a swimming power.”
Later in life, his family owned a private estate in the Adirondacks, near the same woods where he had learned so much. That property is now Sabattis Adventure Camp, where Scouts from the Patriots’ Path Council gather to learn the same lessons as Daniels all those years ago.
“Scouting always held a special place in his heart, as did the Adirondacks,” says Loynd.
The Waterman is available online and wherever books are sold near you.