Richard “Dick” Norris Williams II has washed off the deck of the HMS Titanic in the early hours of April 15, 1912 – he was just 21 years old at the time and the boat was doomed. Falling into the icy waters of the North Atlantic, he spent several hours submerged below the waist in the freezing waters before being rescued by a lifeboat. The frostbite on his legs was extreme, so bad that when he came face to face with a doctor they wanted to amputate his legs nearly immediately.
Williams would have none of it and said that he liked his legs a lot, so he would prefer to keep them. Thank god that he did because he went on to make great use of them during his Tennis career. Born in Geneva in 1891 to American parents, Williams had a very privileged upbringing studying at some of the best Swiss boarding schools and later on in life studying at Harvard. As a result, growing up he had always been playing tennis, especially, as father was an accomplished tennis player in his own right.
They were both on the Titanic as first-class passengers as they were sailing to America to take part in a tennis tournament. When the boat started sinking and taking on water, they both had no intention of leaving the ship so went to the gym to stay warm. Eventually, they were thrown from the Titanic – it is thought his father died when crushed by a collapsed funnel. Williams himself was hurled into the air luckily far enough from the suction zone was able to swim back up to the surface. He recounts finding a collapsible boat half floating and clutching onto it with about thirty other people. When another lifeboat picked them up only eleven people had survived, the rest died from the cold.
Later he found himself on the HMS Carpathia where he was told he should let the ship’s doctor amputate his legs. He refused to let his tennis career be cut short and declined the doctor’s advice, instead, he did everything he could to get the blood flow going again. This was a big potential risk for his life, but he just kept hobbling around until he fell asleep. Even then he forced himself up every two hours and would keep walking around. This tactic proved successful and he just kept ramping up his activity until he finally regained full movement of his legs.
Within one year, Williams became the intercollegiate tennis champion in singles and then won the U.S. Championships in 1914 and 1915. What a comeback.