Looking Back at McCoy Williams

By Matt Calkins
Updated: March 9, 2008

RIVERSIDE, Ca. — McCoy Williams was never one to inspire fear when he’d line up next to his opponents on the starting blocks. After all, he was only 5-foot-4 and this was swimming, a sport where the successful generally had lean muscles and, more importantly — long limbs.

So it usually wasn’t until the Riverside Poly swimmer would torpedo past his competitors, bust a quick flip turn and glide to the win that people realized Williams was the real McCoy.

But Williams was also black. And back in the early 1950s, this meant that he wasn’t allowed to swim in certain pools in the area. Others would only let him swim the night before the pool was drained so it would be “clean” by the time the white swimmers returned.

“You white guys never had to swim in our flippers,” he once told a friend with a smile.

But Williams always found a way to work out. And he got good. Real good. To the point that, in 1952, he placed second in the 50-meter freestyle at the CIF State championship.

But instead of receiving a medal like everyone else who’d earned one, he was handed a piece of paper that said it would be sent to him in the mail. It never came.

Nobody can prove one way or another why this happened. But on that day, it didn’t seem as though swimming a good race was as important as being the right race.

“In those days it very well could have been (a race issue). We certainly underwent some indignities,” said Dell Roberts, a black teammate of Williams’ at Poly. “I don’t know if McCoy was angry about it or not. He might have been, but he never expressed this to me.”

Now let’s skip ahead 56 years.

Let’s skip past Williams’ time as a lifeguard at nearby Lincoln Park and his graduation from California Baptist. Past the protests and marches Williams would organize during the Civil Rights Movement and his meeting his future wife, Nora. Past his work as an housing manager and the births of his five children, all of whom he would brag to about his swimming days and occasionally perform a back flip off a diving board for.

Let’s skip ahead to a luncheon in Riverside in May, where a 71-year-old Williams, who’d been battling leukemia for a few years, began telling Riverside Sport Hall of Fame membership chairman Gary Taylor about that infamous omission five and a half decades ago.

Taylor was moved. A couple months later, he made a move — pitching to the Hall of Fame board members the idea of getting Williams his medal and adding him to the Hall of Fame’s Wall of Distinction.

“The word ‘adversity’ is thrown around way too liberally in sports these days. Teams say they’re facing adversity when they’re quarterback is injured,” Taylor said. “This was adversity. And I thought that maybe we can do something nice to make someone feel good. It doesn’t erase the wrong or erase the slight or the discriminations. But I thought that maybe we could at least get him that medal.”

The Hall of Fame board jumped on the proposal faster than a Mark Spitz freestyle. It contacted Poly athletic director Bob Ritzau, who ventured down to a local shop and had made what he thought a 1952 replica swimming medal would look like.

A presentation was to be made in May of this year … but it didn’t appear as though Williams was going to make it that long.

So last month, with his family on hand, Williams got a surprise visit from members of the Hall of Fame, who walked into his home and handed forth the medal that had been MIA for 56 years.

Williams’ eyes misted. Then he spoke.

The first words out his mouth?

“At last.”

Williams also was awarded a Hall of Fame medal, which is given to individuals in the city who show outstanding ability in their athletic field.

Family members say he wore both to bed every night at first, and laid next to them for the next few weeks until the disease took his life last Sunday.

“I was very touched that anyone could have been denied something that they worked so hard for,” Hall of Fame vice president Suzanne Ashley said, adding that Williams will join the Wall of Distinction in the fall. “He was so patient and so gentlemanly and always kept his spirit. We were going to get him that medal if we had to make it ourselves.”

Williams’ daughter, Kim, said the presentation provided the last real high of his life.

Sounds like a Hall-of-Fame move by the Hall of Fame.