120 years, 120 stories (Part 21) : The connection between the Titanic and an Olympic gold


Richard Williams – have you heard the name before? Guess not. He was one of the survivors of the devastating tragedy that happened to RMS Titanic, the ship that collided with an iceberg and went down in the Atlantic Ocean with thousands of passengers in it.

The Titanic set off for a voyage, its maiden one, on 10th April, 1912. Richard Williams, a 21 year old boy was on board the ship with his father, Charles Duane Williams. The father-son duo were traveling first class in the liner, and became a part of one of the biggest disasters in the 20th century.

When the ship hit the iceberg, most of the passengers were panic stricken, but Richard Williams was one of the other kind. He kept his calm throughout, freed a trapped passenger from a cabin by breaking down a door and he stayed back on the doomed liner almost till the very end. As a matter of fact, his door-breaking caused him getting reprimanded by a steward. He threatened Richard to fine him on account of damaging White Star Line properties and this event actually inspired a scene in James Cameron’s blockbuster film Titanic (1997). In the end, Richard Williams made his way to a lifeboat and the survivors were later rescued. Unfortunately, his father never made it and lost his life in the disaster.

Uh well, you must be wondering what this story has to do with the Olympic Diaries. Incidentally, this Richard Williams happens to be someone who survived the disaster, got back his courage and confidence, worked hard and managed to win a gold medal in the Olympics a few years later. His story is most definitely one of the most inspiring ones you’d ever hear.

Richard spent several hours in freezing Atlantic waters on that day. And quite expectedly, the doctors wanted to amputate his legs, which were already frostbitten, severely. However, the young guy, did not let it happen. “I refuse to give you permission,” he said. “I’m going to need these legs.”

Williams was a tennis player, and was quite a famous one already. He started learning the sport at the age of 12 and in 1911, he won the Swiss Championship. The young guy started to show promises already. Naturally, after the disaster, he could not but try his best to prolong his tennis career. So, instead of going for an amputation, he decided to work through the injury by simply getting up and walking around every two hours, around the clock.

His determination and dedication helped him well, and he started practicing tennis soon after. Richard joined Harvard and the next year, he became the intercollegiate tennis champion in singles (1913). He won the same competition once again in 1915 and also got the doubles trophies twice (1914, 1915). He was also in the American Davis Cup team that emerged victorious in 1925 and 1926. Richard’s Davis Cup victory must have been more special, for he won it with Karl Behr, another survivor from the Titanic disaster.

Williams was renowned for his games in doubles. He was ranked no 2 in the world in 1916 and in 1923, he was ranked number 4.

However, in spite of all these achievements, Richard Williams is mostly famous for his astounding victory in the 1924 Olympics.

At the age of 33, the Titanic survivor took part in the tennis event of 1924 Olympics. He played in the mixed doubles and with a sprained ankle, he showed an indomitable spirit. In the end, Richard won the gold medal in that event, with his partner Hazel Hotchkiss Wightman. This victory has definitely made him one of the most revered characters in the tennis circuit. He was also inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame (Newport, Rhode Island) in 1957.

Richard Williams was indeed a great player with unthinkable courage and mental strength. According to tennis historian Bud Collins, “Williams had a daring style of play. On his best days, when he had the feel and touch and his breathtaking strokes were flashing on the lines, he was unbeatable.”

Several years later, his grandson Quincy Williams also talked about the tennis star and revealed that the person was too down to earth. Quincy said, “He didn’t like to talk about himself. He was a product of his time.”


The tennis community and the sports lovers will always be proud of Richard Williams.

Photo by Carine06