Bill Smith, the 1948 London Olympic Games gold medalist in the 400m freestyle and 4x200m free for the US, has passed away. He was generally considered the World's outstanding swimmer from 1941 to 1949. Smith’s greatest years coincided with the Second World War.
After watching him shatter world records in the 200, 400 and 800 meter freestyle events at the 1942 US Nationals, coaches who would one day make the International Hall of Fame - Ohio State’s Mike Peppe, Michigan’s Matt Mann and Yale’s Bob Kiphuth - were unanimous in declaring the 19 year old Hawaiian “the greatest swimmer who ever lived”.
Smith took up swimming on medical advice: struck by typhoid when he was six, he needed to rebuild his body. Doctors and his parents pointed him to the water. In London he clocked 4:41.0, an Olympic record, to keep teammate James McLane and Australian John Marshall at bay.
The Hall, in its obituary for Smith, writes:
William Melvin Smith, Jr. was born in Honolulu, Hawaii of Irish and Hawaiian ancestry on May 16, 1924. He could not remember a time when he could not swim. As a schoolboy he splashed around in the surf at Waikiki from the moment class was dismissed until it was time for his evening meal. During vacation periods, he would ride waves for ten hours a day. He entered his first competitive meet at the age of fifteen at the Waikiki Natatorium, and a year later moved to Maui, where he could be coached by Hall of Famer Soichi Sakamoto. Under Sakamoto’s guidance, Smith was motivated to excel and develop a stroke and form that Peppe declared was “absolutely perfect”, and which made Smith Sakamoto’s greatest star in a constellation of great swimmers.
Smith held world records in the 200, 400 and 800 meter freestyle for eight years, until the great Japanese swimmer, Hironoshin Furuhashi broke them in 1949 - 50.
Bill Smith had an undefeated collegiate career - despite the interruption serving two years in the Navy during the war. Swimming for the Ohio State University, where he won a total of 36 individual and relay titles in AAU, Big Ten and NCAA Championships and was three-times runner up for the Sullivan Award, the USA’s highest amateur sports honor. He was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame in 1966.
After retiring, Smith served as the Water Safety Director, Department of Parks and Recreation for the City and County of Honolulu. He also coached age group swimmers for many years, most recently at the Kamehameha Swim Club. A memorial service will be held in Honolulu on Saturday, March 9.