Sad news: Olympic gold medal swimmer and Hawai’i hero Bill Smith – a world record holder whose first competitive swimming experiences were in the waters of the Waikiki Natatorium – has died. Bill was 88 when he passed away Feb. 8, his family with him.
Considered the world’s greatest swimmer for virtually all of the 1940s, William Melvin Smith was 15 when he started his competitive career at the Natatorium in 1939. Just a year later, he placed second in the mile swim at the AAU Nationals in California, where he met coaching legend Soichi Sakamoto. He later moved to Maui to train under Sakamoto in the island’s sugar plantation irrigation ditches.
Seven world records
Bill went on to win 15 AAU national championships and, at Ohio State under Coach Mike Peppe, eight NCAA championships.
He set seven world records in 1941 and 1942, and three of them – in the 200-, 400- and 800-meter freestyles – survived until the 1949-1950 season. He held American records at 18 distances.
His crowning achievement: two gold medals – in the 400-meter freestyle and 800-meter free relay — in the 1948 Olympic Games in London. Bill is, of course, an inductee of the International Swimming Hall of Fame.
Back at the Natatorium
After retirement, Bill returned to Oahu, where he was water safety director for the City and County of Honolulu for more than 30 years. Their first office? Inside the Natatorium, of course. Bill grew the lifeguard service from its beginnings in Waikiki to coverage of most of Oahu, including world-famous but potentially treacherous beaches around the island. Today, Ocean Safety’s South Shore operations office is housed in the same space where it all began, under the bleachers at the Natatorium.
Natatorium friend and supporter
The Friends of the Natatorium are particularly proud of Bill’s support for preservation and renewal of the pool where he launched his amazing athletic career and later worked. Less than two years ago, for instance, he was co-signer of an eloquent and forceful pro-restoration op-ed in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser. We are forever grateful.
Mahalo and aloha
A funeral is scheduled for Saturday, March 9, at St. Ann’s Church in Kaneohe. Visitation begins at 10 a.m., the service will start at 11 a.m. and a reception will follow.
Mahalo and aloha, Bill. We send our very best to Moana, your wife of 61 years, and to your children and your entire family.