Richard Norris Williams should not have been among the passengers on the Titanic. The young American tennis player had intended to leave Europe earlier, but a measles outbreak delayed him, forcing him to book a ticket on the then marvel of navigation. Not alone, along with his father, on a trip that was going to go down in history for all the wrong reasons.
The ship left Southampton harbor on 10 April, and five days later, Williams would manage to be among the few lucky survivors. And if this should be the highlight of his life, it was only the beginning of his awesome story.
He was already a household name in the tennis world the day he boarded the doomed ship. His teammates and coaches knew him as a young and promising tennis player, everyone expected a lot from him.
Born on January 29, 1891 in Geneva to American parents, he had returned to the United States to take part in a series of tournaments while studying at Harvard.
However, on April 14, at approximately 11.40pm, the ship he was on was about to crash into the most famous iceberg in history. Williams and his father—who incidentally was a direct descendant of America's "Father of the Nation," Benjamin Franklin—immediately left their cabin in the ship's A seat and took the ladder to the deck. Unsure of what to do, they started heading towards the bar.
Their run stopped in front of a closed door, which one of the crewmen was struggling to open. While the rest of the passengers, overcome by panic, began to run in the opposite direction, he rushed to the door, managing to break it.
The irony of the matter is that the crewman became furious with the young tennis player, shouting at him that he would report him to the ship's owning company for the damage! A similar scene exists in James Cameron's "Titanic", for anyone who remembers the 90s blockbuster.
When the two arrived at the bar, another crewman informed them that it was closed. They grabbed an empty bottle and headed to the ship's gym, where Williams, to warm up, got on the stationary bike and started pedaling. While they were there, they heard gymnast Thomas McCauley say that the life jacket would have saved him from drowning.
floating in the middle of the ocean
But in reality, life jackets would save very few. As the icy water rushed into the ship, Richard Williams found himself floating in the dark waters of the sea, alone, without his father. It is unknown what exactly happened to the second one. The most likely scenarios are that he was either killed as the ship broke up or drowned.
"I didn't stay long under the water, I quickly surfaced and took off my big fur coat", he would later write. "I did the same with my shoes. About twenty meters away I saw something floating. I swam towards it and saw that it was a lifeboat."
Out of the middle of nowhere, he looked up at the lights of the sinking ship. "It was an unimaginable sight", he remembers.
“As the bow dipped, the stern rose higher and higher into the air, then turned and passed slowly over my head. If it had fallen then it would have crushed me. Looking straight ahead, I saw the three propellers and rudder silhouetted against the clear sky. Then the ship glided smoothly into the ocean, without any noise".
"I'm going to need these legs"
Williams and the other Titanic survivors may have been rescued by the ship "Carpathia" which rushed to help, but his ordeal was not over yet. The ship's doctor took one look at the young tennis player's frozen legs and "cheerfully recommended" their amputation.
But the young castaway refused, telling the doctor that "I'm going to need these legs".
Determined, therefore, to begin to feel his legs again, Williams went up on the deck of the "Carpathia" and walked every two hours. A few months later, he would be back on the tennis courts.
In August 1912, the young man would win the mixed doubles matches with Mary Brown at the US National Championship - now called the US Open. And two years later, he would win the US Open again, this time in singles, defeating Maurice McLaughlin, who had denied him the title the previous year.
But he would soon be forced to take another short break from tennis, as the sirens of World War I began to sound. His bravery on the battlefield would earn him another medal this time, that of the Legion of Honor.
Upon his return, however, he will continue his victories on the field, until he reaches the Olympic Games in Paris, in 1924, where he will win the gold medal.
In 1957, the near-mutilated castaway would be inducted into the Tennis Hall of Fame, with a New York Times reporter writing of him that "at his best, he was unbeatable and more dazzling than even Bill Tilden," the top tennis player. from 1920 to 1925.
Despite his tumultuous life, Williams never sought fame and rarely spoke about his experiences as a passenger on the Titanic. He just released a 35-page booklet of his memoirs about the incident shortly before he died and that was it.
In 1997, when "Titanic" hit the big screen, his grandson remembers that the family began to be bombarded with questions and calls from journalists. But they had nothing more to say to them. Williams had died many years earlier, on June 2, 1968.
"He was a modest man who didn't like to talk about himself," his grandson will tell reporters.
Among all the other incredible things that happened to him, the fact that the ship-owning company returned to the Olympic tennis player the coat that he had thrown into the sea to save himself, and also the bottle that he had taken with his father from the bar stands out.
The empty bottle now graces his descendants' home as exactly what it is:a special family heirloom.