- 09 Aug 1948
- London 1948
Bill Smith - Swimming
As a six-year-old boy growing up in Hawaii, Bill Smith contracted typhoid. Once recovered, his family's response was to get him swimming, in an effort to rebuild his battered body, and he responded well enough to reach the national championships. But he wanted to improve, and found a perfect mentor in the shape of Soichi Sakamoto, based on the island of Maui and a natural coaching genius.
Sakamoto was Japanese-born. He could barely swim himself, but was wonderful at coaching others. He was a strict disciplinarian, but also a man blessed with determination and an innovative mind. He started a club, aimed at poor families, called the 3YSC – the Three Year Swimming Club. The idea was to train hard for three years with the aim of making the American national team.
When a swimming pool was not available, he would encourage his athletes to swim against the current in an irrigation ditch, to the side of which he had painted distance markers. He built his own weight-training equipment for his swimmers, and filmed his swimmers to look for ways to improve individual techniques.
Bill Smith prospered more than anyone. At 24 years of age, many thought he was already too old to win gold in London. Instead, he produced one of the best performances of any swimmer, winning the 400m freestyle final by more than two seconds and setting a new Olympic record for the distance. Smith, a former Navy officer, also took a gold medal from the 4x200m relay.
At one stage, Smith held eight freestyle world records and 12 national records, but that was the end of his Olympic career. He returned to Hawaii to become the director of the Lifeguard Programme, and – inspired by Sakamoto – a swimming coach.