Passages: Bill Woolsey, Olympic Gold Medalist, Hawaiian Legend Dies at 87


Olympic gold medalist Bill Woolsey died Saturday at 87. He was a legend of the sport as a swimmer and later as a coach.

In 1952, Helsinki Games, the Hawaiian native was part of the U.S. Olympic gold medal winning 4 x 200 meter relay team. He also competed in the 1500 freestyle that year.

“He was super humble, ” grandson Ikaika Woolsey, a former University of Hawaii quarterback, told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser. “He didn’t really talk too much. He taught people to be humble and let your actions speak, and everything else will take care of itself.”

Woolsey traveled with the U.S. Swim team took him to Bermuda in 1953, Mexico in 1954 and Japan in 1955, all while dominating at home, claiming the AAU national championships in the 200 freestyle for three consecutive years, from 1954-56.

Woolsey returned to the Olympics in 1956, again a part of the 4×200 relay of the U.S. This team earned the silver medal in Melbourne, Australia.  He also took sixth in the 100 freestyle and qualified in the backstroke.

Collegiately, Bill Woolsey competed at Indiana. In 1956, he was the Big Ten champion in the  220-, 440- and 1500-yard freestyle events. He won the NCAA championship in the two shorter events in 1956 and 1957 as well.

In 1956-57 he won both the 220- and 440-yard freestyle events at the Senior National AAU Indoor Championships.

In one more major international meet, Bill Woolsey won the bronze medal in the 100 freestyle at the Pan American Games in 1959 in Chicago.

He then turned to coaching in Hawaii.

“When we finally got a house in Kahalu ‘u, he built a pool, ” son Tripp Woolsey told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser. “Summers, from 6 a.m. to 5 p.m., there was nothing but kids. He taught them swimming for years and years. I’ll still meet people. ‘I know you don’t know me, but I know your dad. He taught me swimming way back when.’ … He taught adults. His goal was to teach everybody how to swim.”

Bill Woolsey then moved to California, where he continued to coach swimming into his 70s.

He is survived by wife, Julia ; daughters Heidi and Kelly ; sons Tripp and Cleve ; 13 grandchildren ; and nine great-grandchildren.