George Breen, a Four-Time Olympic Medalist, Dies After Battle With Pancreatic Cancer

George Breen, a four-time Olympic medalist between the 1956 Games in Melbourne and the 1960 Games in Rome, died on Nov. 9 after battling pancreatic cancer. He was 84. Breen is considered one of the finest distance freestylers in the history of United States Swimming and was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame in 1975.

Born on July 19, 1935, Breen didn’t follow a typical path into the sport, as he did not begin his competitive career until his freshman year at Cortland State University. At Cortland State, Breen’s natural ability in the pool was guided by legendary coach Doc Counsilman, who molded Breen into one of his first standout athletes.

A 22-time national champion who established six world records during his career, Breen enjoyed his greatest success in the 1500 freestyle, an event in which he set the world record on two occasions. At the 1956 Olympics, Breen set a world record of 17:52.9 in the preliminaries of the 1500 freestyle, but he could not match that time in the final and settled for the bronze medal in a race won by Australian legend Murray Rose. That Olympiad also featured Breen winning a bronze medal in the 400 freestyle and a silver medal as a member of the United States’ 800 freestyle relay.

George Breen

George Breen won four Olympic medals in two Games appearances.

Four years later, Breen again qualified to represent the United States in Olympic action, winning another bronze medal in the 1500 free after training under Counsilman at Indiana. At the 1960 Games, Breen’s veteran status led to him being named captain of Team USA. A year earlier, at the Pan American Games, Breen was the gold medalist in the 400 freestyle and the silver medalist in the 1500 freestyle.

Breen’s excellence in the sport extended beyond his athletic prowess as Breen also etched himself as an elite coach. Breen was the coach of the University of Pennsylvania from 1966-1982 and also served as a club coach for the Gloucester County Institute of Technology and the Jersey Wahoos.

Among his other achievements include being the Chair of the USA Swimming Olympic International Operations Committee, a longtime Board of Directors member for Middle Atlantic Swimming and a member of the USA Swimming Board of Directors as Coach Vice President of USA Swimming. Breen was also inducted into the American Swimming Coaches Association Hall of Fame and the Cortland State Hall of Fame.

“I was a lucky person and met a lot of wonderful people,” Breen once said of his time in the sport. “Besides Doc, Indianapolis Athletic Club coach Gene Lee, Ray Essick and Frank Keefe also played an important role in my development. I met George Haines and learned there are a lot of coaches who were pretty smart guys. Then there were the swimmers. I say, ‘I don’t go to work. I go to swimming.’ I was taught to enjoy it. I think of swimming as a business in which you can run into clients for the rest of your life. Swimming offers so many positives, so you don’t have to dwell on the negatives.”

Bruce Wigo, at the International Swimming Hall of Fame, caught up with George Breen six years ago. Here are some tremendous memories and insight:

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