Emma Oosthuizen
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Richard Dick Norris Williams II, a young man of twenty-one years old, was swept into the frigid North Atlantic Ocean as he was swept off the deck of the sinking RMS Titanic in the wee hours of April 15, 1912. Williams was rescued by a lifeboat, but he spent hours submerged in water that was nearly frozen. He suffered from severe frostbite, prompting medical professionals to consider amputating his legs. However, Williams ultimately decided he liked his legs just the way they were and found creative ways to use them.

A child of American parents, born on January 29, 1891, in Geneva, Switzerland—his father, Charles Duane Williams, was a descendant of Benjamin Franklin—Williams enjoyed a privileged upbringing, attending an exclusive Swiss boarding school and eventually accepting admission to Harvard.

He boarded the Titanic in Cherbourg, France as a first-class passenger on his way to America to compete in a tennis tournament. His father was also a successful tennis player and helped found the International Tennis Federation. (The Swiss Championship had been won by Williams the previous year.)

Just as everyone was starting to freak out after the Titanic struck the iceberg on April 14, Williams sailed past a stateroom where a steward had locked a terrified passenger inside because he couldn’t open the door. Williams pried open the door and rescued the passenger, but the unfortunate steward was more worried about the damage to his property and threatened to denounce Williams to the White Star line, completely oblivious to the catastrophe that was about to unfold.

Following this, the father and son went to the gym to burn calories and kill time as the ship sank. But Williams did, in the end, abandon the ship. While it’s true that he was rescued from the sinking Titanic at some point, some reports suggest Williams saw his father’s death right before this happened. According to these accounts, the older Williams was crushed along with several others as the forward funnel collapsed. Apart from Williams’s resolute assertion that his father was absent following his ejection from the ship, no surviving direct quotation from Williams himself seems to have addressed this particular element of the event.

Upon impact with the water, the Titanic reacted by sending me soaring through the air and out of the boat’s suction zone. It didn’t take long for me to emerge from the water, and I promptly removed the bulky fur coat. I removed my shoes as well. Something was afloat in the distance of around twenty yards. When I got there, I saw that it was a collapsible boat, so I swam over to investigate. Holding on for dear life, I eventually climbed up and stood smack dab in the center. I was waist-deep in water. It was grasped to by perhaps thirty of us. Only eleven of us survived the cold until Officer Lowes’s boat, Lifeboat 14, rescued us.

Afterward, Williams found himself on board the Cunard Line steamer RMS Carpathia, which responded to the distress signal from the Titanic and saved the lives of almost 700 people. (Another big ship was right there in the line of sight as the Titanic went down, which is quite interesting). Unfortunately, the ship did not proceed to assist since their radio operator had slept for the night and the captain decided to disregard the emergency flares emanating from the Titanic, as well as the peculiar manner in which it was submerged, while they were deliberating about the problem. (Another post will go into more detail on this.)

Coming back to Williams, he had to brave the cold night drenched from his brief dip in the ocean, and that wasn’t even taking into account the fact that his lifeboat legs were still underwater. The outcome was that the doctor from Carpathias strongly suggested amputating his legs the moment he laid eyes on them.

Despite the obvious danger to his life, Williams turned down the offer because he refused to have his promising tennis career cut short. Rather, he did all he could to restore blood flow, limping as best he could until he wanted to sleep and then slept. Even yet, he would get up every two hours and walk around in the vain hope that his legs would get better since more blood would flow to them. Eventually, as the power in his legs came back, he persisted in increasing his daily physical activities until everything was back to normal. As a result of his hard work, Williams won the college tennis championship in 1913 and again in 1915 while playing for Harvard. (In 1914 and 1915, he also won the doubles title).

Williams won the following illustrious tennis tournaments: the 1914 and 1916 U.S. Championships in singles, the 1920 Wimbledon doubles championship with Chuck Garland, the 1924 Olympic Gold medal in mixed doubles with Hazel Hotchkiss Wightman, and the 1925 and 1926 Davis Cup championships as a member of the winning teams.

Lessons To Be Learnt From Williams

  • Williams showcased unparalleled resilience when faced with adversity, surviving the Titanic disaster and overcoming severe frostbite, displaying the power of resilience in the face of life’s challenges.
  • His selfless act of saving a trapped passenger during the Titanic’s chaos emphasizes the importance of empathy and selflessness, even in the direst circumstances.
  • Refusing to succumb to potential amputation, Williams’ determination and persistence in rehabilitating his legs highlight the significance of perseverance in achieving one’s goals.
  • Surviving a catastrophic event like the Titanic required immense courage. Williams’ bravery in the face of fear serves as an example of conquering fear in extreme situations.
  • His ability to adapt to unforeseen circumstances, such as clinging to a collapsible boat in freezing waters, underscores the importance of adaptability and flexibility in critical situations.
  • Williams’ survival from a near-fatal disaster likely instilled in him a deep sense of gratitude for life itself, reminding us to appreciate and cherish every moment.
  • Despite the trauma he endured, Williams maintained a positive outlook, focusing on recovery and resuming his tennis career, emphasizing the power of optimism in overcoming challenges.
  • His dedication to physical activity and regular movement, even in the wake of frostbite, highlights the importance of perseverance in physical rehabilitation.
  • The loss of his father during the Titanic tragedy possibly taught Williams profound lessons in resilience and coping with grief, demonstrating the capacity to learn from loss and tragedy.
  • His subsequent triumphs in tennis post-Titanic illustrate the fruits of determination, persistence, and passion, showing that adversity can be a catalyst for future success.

The saga of Dick Williams unveils a narrative that extends far beyond survival—it’s a testament to overcoming insurmountable obstacles. From the treacherous waters of the Titanic to the brink of potential amputation, Williams emerged as a paragon of resilience and determination. His journey exemplifies the transformative power of perseverance, resilience, and unwavering dedication, inspiring generations with a tale that epitomizes triumph in the face of adversity.