July 21, 1924: The day Titanic survivor Dick Williams won Olympic gold

What exactly happened that day

On this day, July 21, 1924, Dick Williams won the gold medal after winning the mixed doubles at the Paris Olympics, with Hazel Wightman. Twelve years earlier, Williams had survived the sinking of the Titanic and narrowly escaped having his leg amputated after standing for hours in the freezing waters of the North Atlantic Ocean.

The Facts: From Great Escape to Olympic Champion

Richard “Dick” Norris Williams was born in 1891, in Switzerland, of American parents and started playing tennis at the age of 12, with his father, Charles, a passionate lawyer who initiated the project of an International Federation , in 1911. Unfortunately, Charles never lived to see his dream come true. In the spring of 1912, Richard was accepted to Harvard, and father and son boarded the RMS Titanic to go to America. On April 14, the ship struck an iceberg and sank in less than two hours. Richard and his father remained on board almost until the last minute, but as they finally tried to get to a lifeboat, Charles was killed, hit by a falling funnel. Richard made his way into a lifeboat, where he sat for hours, his legs submerged in freezing water. When the passengers were rescued, the ordeal left her legs so badly frozen that the doctor on the Carpathia – the first ship on the scene – wanted to amputate them. “I refuse to give you permission,” said Dick Williams, 21 at the time, according The New York Times. “I’m going to need those legs.” He continued to walk along the deck of the RMS Carpathians, the ship that had saved him, until he felt his legs again.

The risk taken by the young man paid off. Only twelve weeks after the disaster, he was already participating in the Longwood Challenge Bowl, near Boston, where he was beaten by another survivor of the sinking, Karl Howell Behr. With the courage he showed during the Titanic tragedy, it’s no surprise that he played a very risky style of play. According to Allison Danzig, the American sportswriter, Williams had “one of the most daring attacks tennis has ever seen. He never played it safe. He stood close, took the ball on the rise, often on the half-volley, and played for the lines. This stylish game led him to triumph at the US Nationals in 1914, taking his revenge (6-3, 8-6, 10-8) over Maurice McLoughlin, who had beaten him in the 1913 final. He won the US Nationals a second time, in 1916, graduated from Harvard before serving in the United States Army during World War I, where he earned a prestigious military medal, the Military Cross.

After the Great War he began a career as an investment banker but did not hang up his rackets, although he had most of his other great results in doubles, winning the title at Wimbledon in 1920 (partnered with Chuck Garland) and reaching three other major finals (one at the All England Club in 1924, two at the US Nationals in 1921 and 1923). However, his legs were weakened and often became sore during long matches.

In 1924, shortly after losing the doubles final at Wimbledon, Dick Williams took part in the Olympic Games, across the Channel, in the brand new Olympic stadium in Colombes, in the western suburbs of Paris. Ousted from the tournament in the quarter-finals in singles, where, according to the official record, he was “not able to give his best in singles due to a foot injury”, he managed to clinch gold in the mixed doubles, partnering 38-year-old Hazel Wightman, who had also won the women’s doubles with the great Helen Wills. They will remain the reigning champions for… 88 years.

And then ? More titles, Davis Cup glory, Olympic ban

Dick Williams would claim two more major doubles titles, triumphing at the U.S. Nationals (partnered with Vincent Richards) in 1925 and 1926. He would captain the U.S. Davis Cup team from 1921, and he would also play in double on Davis’ success. Cup campaigns of 1925 and 1926. However, he will never have the opportunity to defend his Olympic title because, due to a conflict between the International Tennis Federation and the Olympic Committee, tennis will be banned from the Olympic Games until in 1988, and the mixed doubles events would not be played until 2012. Williams would retire from tennis at the age of 44 and be inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1957. He died in 1968, at the age of 77.

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