Vancouver's Forgotten Track Star
Shy Percy Williams shocked the world winning two Olympic golds and put Vancouver on the map. With archival photo essay.
[Editor's note: Find the arrows above to scroll through archival pictures of Percy Williams and the early Vancouver track community.]
The phone rang last week. It was Vee.
"Are you watching the Olympics right now?" she asked.
That's Vee Dewar (nee Gilchrist). She's 96. She may be in an assisted-living facility but don't get the wrong idea -- many a 40-year-old out there seem somehow older. In fact, she only stopped playing tennis six years ago. She knows her sports.
"What's going on, Vee?"
"Well, they just said Bolt, Usain Bolt, is the only one to win both the 100 and 200. But that's not right. You and I both know that's not right, don't we? Our Percy did it, too!"
Vee was referring to one of the announcers on the opening day of the London Games who may have incorrectly claimed Bolt the only sprinter to win gold in both those races at one Olympic Games, forgetting a few others, like one Jesse Owens, Carl Lewis, and a now mostly forgotten Vancouverite. His name, Percy Williams.
Vee and I are linked through a tight connection of loose relations (sister's brother-in-law's mother), which is how we came to be sharing brunch one day a few months back. It was there I was blathering on about a fascinating book that came out last year about Williams. It's called I Just Ran, by Samuel Hawley.
As I paused to take a breath, I heard Vee say:
"Oh, he was a handsome man."
It turned out, Vee knew Percy Williams personally. In fact, she used to follow him around before he was a star. In fact, he was her first crush.
Vee said she and her friends -- Olive McLarnin, sister of Jimmy "Baby Face" McLarnin, voted one of the greatest welterweight boxers in history, and Sylka Skehor -- were a self-formed gang of East Side jocks who spent their days in the mid-1920s at the Brockton Point or Hastings Park tracks, at times training for their own races and at other times swooning over the older Williams or possibly acting as rabbits he had to chase as part of his training. That Hastings Park track, by the way, was actually the horse racing track and full of divots because of it. That's how they rolled on the East Side back then.
At one point when we were talking two weeks ago, Vee, clad this time in a bright yellow track suit, slammed her fist on the side of her chair and said:
"I can't believe that anyone can be ALIVE and not know Percy."
That's how big a deal he was on the early life of this city.
So, on the eve of the Olympic 100 metre final, the event where some argue Percy Williams put Vancouver on the map, here is a little of what you need to know about his life and career, courtesy of the excellent research of Samuel Hawley and the delightful memories of Vee Dewar.
Skinny legs and all
Williams was not your typical sprinter. Slight of build. A little short. Thin legs. Much more whippet than bulldog. Rumoured to have a weak heart from a fight with rheumatic fever and "dicky" knee from a rugby injury.
His self-taught coach, Bob Granger, when he first saw Williams run said:
"Compared with Wally Scott [a Vancouver competitor], who was a sturdy, well-proportioned youngster, Percy was a runt: under 5 feet six, weighing not more than one hundred and ten pounds, puny and spindly."
More 98-pound weakling compared to Usain Bolt's Charles Atlas.
That agrees with Vee's memory. But she also saw something else:
"Oh, he was beautiful. Not particularly tall but really splendidly built. And dark curly hair. A nice smile when he chose to use it."
Vee was 11 or 12 at the time.
The coach, Bob Granger, saw something else, too:
"But neither had I ever seen, in all my years of watching track races, such a pair of legs! They moved like the pistons of a gasoline engine with somebody opening the throttle wider all the time."
It could be argued, though, that it wasn't despite his supposedly weak heart, that jinky knee, and that self-taught coach may that he became successful but because of those things. That and the fact that he lived on the margins, in what many would have considered the middle of nowhere, at the outpost of empire not in the centre. But already we're ahead of the story.
Percy Williams was born in Vancouver, raised on Keefer Street in Strathcona and moved to 12th Avenue with his mother, Dot. At first and for much of his career, Percy would say he didn't really like to run, preferring tennis and rugby or just enjoying the sun and beach at English Bay. His first track coach got his friends to pressure him into running for the high school team by appealing to school patriotism. In later years, his coach, Granger, would motivate him by saying his competitors were talking trash about him. They weren't. But such things lit enough of a fire to burn through whatever his insecurities may have been.
The meteor rising
At the age of 17, Bob Granger offered his expertise as coach after watching an untrained Percy sweep the high school competitions. Within a year, he had won the provincial championship in a time fast enough to qualify for the Canadian championships in Toronto. He lost that one on a on a convoluted trials system that was ultimately decided by coin toss.
The next year, 1928, was a different story. He again qualified for the nationals, this time in Olympic record time. Yet despite the impressive time, the Eastern media scoffed. And after watching his and Bob Granger's unique style of training, which included laying on the grass, watching other racers to "imprint" good technique, never running full speed, and so on -- branded him a slacker and prima donna.
Percy responded with another Olympic record time in the 100 metres, this time running into the wind. Days later, after winning the 200 metres also, he was on an ocean liner and steaming across the Atlantic to Amsterdam and the Olympic Games.
Bob Granger was almost left behind.
For both national championships, Granger, who volunteered his coaching time when not working at a part-time janitorial job, couldn't afford the train fare. So he struck a deal to work on the train serving food in exchange for passage. Now, faced with a much more expensive trip to Europe, he could work no such deal with the ocean liner.
That's where Vancouver and Vee come back into the story. Track enthusiasts across Vancouver did everything they could to raise money for the stranded coach. Percy's mother had bake sales. Vee and her friends started a money-raising campaign at their school.
"This is Vancouver East," explains Vee. "No one had a great deal of money, you know. But Mrs. Williams was a very very kind lady. She put up with us... These are Percy's girls, she used to say."
And Percy's girls knew Bob Granger was key to Percy's success. Money raised. Problem solved.
Enter Cap Cornelius
They were probably right. Without Bob Granger, there's a good chance Percy may not have won.
The official coach of the Olympic team was a man by the name of J.R. "Cap" Cornelius. A zealot in the "no pain, no gain" mold of athletics, he wasn't a fan of the apparently lazy Percy Williams. He was one of the folks who let slip to the media that Percy just wasn't tough enough.
In a letter home to his mother, Percy described him this way:
"The coach here is one of the Scotch men who believe in the Big "I" and little 'u,' and he was dead set against the method of training I use. Bob figured out that he was trying to give me 20 times too much work to do, so I just loafed all the time I have been here... "
"He's alright but would be better off teaching Sunday School," Percy also later wrote.
After a short power struggle between the Scottish former WWI captain and the part-time janitor, Bob Granger regained control of Percy's training and continued with his unconventional methods. In their hotel in Amsterdam, for example, Bob had Percy make space between the beds and "launch himself out of a crouch and into a mattress held by his roommates," to practice his starts.
Whatever the method, it worked. At those Games, Percy Williams stunned Canada and the world winning both the 100 and 200 metres.
Just how surprising was this?
Back at his hotel after the 100m, Percy and a teammate noticed a throng of people outside. Hawley tells the story of how Percy joined the mob and asked one of them why they were there. "We're waiting for the Canadian runner, Williams to come out of the hotel."
No one knew what the fastest man in the world looked like.
"I didn't tell him who I was," Percy recounted, "I stood around, waiting for him too, and talking to people. It was more fun."
His anonymity didn't last long, especially in Canada. Hawley quotes George F. Stanley, the man who eventually designed the Canadian flag:
"I was so impressed with a picture of Percy Williams winning a gold medal in the 1928 Olympics that it always stayed in my mind and inspired me when I was designing the flag. As Williams breasted the tape, you could see the large maple leaf on his jersey and there was no doubt everyone knew he was from Canada."
Back home to a parade
On his return to Vancouver, Williams stepped off the train into the waiting arms of Mayor L.D. Taylor and Premier Simon Fraser Tolmie. They bundled him and Granger into cars and paraded them through the confetti-filled city where thousands greeted him. Special arrangements had been made to broadcast the event live over the airways by reporters with microphones stationed along the route, a first in Canadian history, according to Hawley.
"Oh my God," says Vee remembering the event, "the streets were loaded with people from all over the place... Everybody just burst with pride."
At various points on his post-Olympic tour, he was given gifts. Vancouver gave him a car. Others, a watch. At one point, he was given a shotgun.
He went on to set the indoor track world on fire the next season, proving he was no flash in the pan. He also won the 100 yard dash at the inaugural British Empire Games (now known as the Commonwealth Games) in Hamilton. In 1930, he set the world record but pulled his thigh muscle doing so, an injury he never really recovered from. At the 1932 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, he was eliminated in the semi-finals of the 100 metre event.
Coach and athlete
Hawley's book makes it clear that without a Bob Granger there probably wasn't a Percy Williams. Living in Vancouver and being self-taught, Granger was unencumbered by the mainstream sporting theories of the likes of Cap Cornelius. So, when presented with the raw but delicate and somewhat tempermental talent of someone like Percy Williams, he didn't try to mold him into the mainstream image of the tough, muscular athlete/warrior. Instead, he developed techniques years ahead of his time -- massage, visualization and an understanding of the harm overtraining can do.
Eventually, Williams fell out with Bob Granger, who eventually left the sporting life and became an insurance man. And eventually Percy stopped running and became an insurance man, too, and during World War II, a pilot and flying instructor. Neither man married. In fact, Percy lived with his mother from the end of the war to her death in 1980. Even into his '60s, Percy was known to defer to his mother when asked certain questions.
In his later years, Percy's painful shyness worsened. "Percy, in short," as Hawley tells it, "wasn't what the amateur sports establishment wanted him to be." In fact, the enigmatic star never was. "A movement was started to name [a] facility after Percy, who with difficulty had been brought out to the sod turning. The idea was brushed aside and it was called Empire Stadium instead."
In much later years, wracked with arthritis and, no doubt, loneliness, Percy turned to drink. He was kicked out of the Capilano Golf Club, one of his last remaining places for social contact, when he was caught stealing liquor from other members.
On a grey day in late November, Percy Williams took out that shotgun he won, sat down in his bathtub and shot himself.
In an unfortunate coincidence, Harry Jerome, the man who broke many of Percy's local records, himself a Vancouverite and former world record holder in the 100 metres, died a week later, on the way home from Percy Williams' memorial service.
Still Percy's girl
Vee, on the other hand, went on to graduate from the first university-level physical education program in the country at the University of Toronto. She had a long career as a P.E. teacher in Grand Forks, Vancouver, Penticton and Summerland. She's given up the tennis and lawn bowling but still rides the stationary bike for a kilometre or so each day. "I've run since I was born. It's one of the reasons I'm still here and I'm 96 and still walking without a cane."
And while she married and had children and now grandchildren, about Percy she still fondly recalls:
"He didn't ever kiss any of us, though, and it probably wasn't because he didn't have the opportunity." At this point her grin is as wide as her face as she remembers her school-girl crush. "He was this gorgeous, absolutely gorgeous man."
No doubt, she'll be watching tomorrow's finals and thinking about her first crush. This time, she says her money's on Bolt.