Richard Norris Williams was born in Switzerland in 1891, to reasonably wealthy parents. He became a world-renowned tennis player, but it is for his defiance of death, exhibition of heroism and pure maverick behaviour in April 1912 that he is best known.
Richard was travelling with his father, Charles Williams, on board the Titanic on its doomed maiden voyage in April 1912. After the ship collided with an iceberg, instead of searching frantically for Kate Winslet for “one last sketch” like most of us would have done, Richard actually went about rescuing his fellow passengers. With the boat slowly sinking, Richard and Charles came across a steward trying to pry open a cabin door. Without stopping to think, Richard lowered his shoulder and smashed through the door, freeing the terrified passenger trapped inside. The steward, in an outrageous display of jobsworthiness, then threatened to fine him for destroying White Star Line property; an incident that actually inspired a scene in James Cameron’s Titanic.
After a few hours, the boat was flooded and Richard and his father were plunged into the freezing water. Charles was lost in the wreckage but Richard was able to swim to a badly damaged lifeboat, which he clung to for hours with thirty other passengers. One desperate man asked Richard if he could hold on to his neck for support; and Richard obliged for nearly an hour, until he felt the grip loosen as the man sank to his icy grave. By the time the crew of the RMS Carpathia had found the damaged lifeboat, only eleven passengers were still alive.
|The RMS Titanic sank in the Atlantic Ocean on April 15, 1912, killing about 1,500 people|
The doctor of the Carpathia examined Richard, who had severe hypothermia and two worryingly purple and lifeless legs. Fearing that gangrene would set in, the doctor recommended that the legs be amputated immediately. Richard refused, and for the rest of the four days it took to get to New York, he stumbled around the deck almost non-stop and in complete agony, in an attempt to restore the circulation. This tactic worked, and Richard was swinging his racket again after only a few weeks. His legs were permanently discoloured by the five hours they spent in the freezing water, but I’m sure he didn’t mind too much.
Richard went on to win two men’s singles titles at the US Championships in 1914 and 1916, a Wimbledon doubles champion in 1920 and became an Olympic Gold Medalist in the mixed doubles in 1924, whilst playing with a sprained ankle. He was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1957, and died in 1968 aged 77.
By George Odling