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Bill Yorzyk, First Butterfly Olympic Gold Medalist, Dies at Age 87

By Karen Rosen | Sept. 04, 2020, 9:21 a.m. (ET)

Right: William Yorzyk (front row, second from left) poses with the U.S. Men's Swimming Team at the Olympic Games Melbourne 1956.

 

Bill Yorzyk, the first swimmer to win a gold medal in the butterfly stroke when it made its Olympic debut in 1956, died Wednesday. He was 87.

The Massachusetts native won the only gold medal for Team USA in men’s swimming at the Olympic Games Melbourne 1956. Yorzyk surged to victory in the 200-meter butterfly, an event then called the “dolphin butterfly” because of the kicking technique.

Yorzyk’s former coach and longtime friend Charlie Smith told The Republican newspaper in 2012, “I have footage of Bill’s race, and you can see the crowd exploding with cheers as he took off to win that race. With 50 meters to go, he just turned into a sprinter and left everybody way behind. It was as if he turned on the after-burners.”

Yorzyk, who came into the Games with the world record of 2 minutes, 16.7 seconds, won with an Olympic record time of 2:19.3. He defeated Takashi Ishimoto of Japan (2:23.8) and Gyorgy Tumpek of Hungary (2:23.9), who were previous world record holders in the event, by a margin of about 6 meters.

At that time, the men swam only the 200 fly and the women only the 100 fly, or Yorzyk would likely have won the 100 as well. There also was no 4 x 100 medley relay, which was introduced in 1960.

Shelley Mann, swimming the women’s 100 butterfly in Melbourne, won the only women’s swimming gold medal for the United States, leading a Team USA sweep four days later.

Since Yorzyk paved the way, U.S. men have dominated the 200 fly, winning 10 of the 16 gold medals in the 200 fly, plus five silvers and five bronzes. Michael Troy won in 1960 and Carl Robie in 1968. Mark Spitz led a Team USA sweep in 1972, while Mike Bruner led another sweep four years later. Mel Stewart broke a 16-year drought to win the gold in 1992, with Tom Malchow prevailing in 2000.

Michael Phelps won the first of his three gold medals in the 200 fly in 2004 and his last in 2016. 

Learned to Swim in College

Yorzyk, who was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame in 1971, could be more accurately described as a “late starter” than a “late bloomer.” According to The Republican, he tried several sports while he was in high school in Northampton, Massachusetts, but could not make the varsity team in any of them. There was no pool or swim team at his high school.

Yorzyk put his energy into becoming an Eagle Scout and enrolled at Springfield College at age 16.

When he arrived, he recalled, “I didn't know how to swim. But, I soon found out that I'd better learn, because you couldn't get out of freshman year without passing tests for swimming, diving and life-saving."

Yorzyk immediately showed potential and excelled despite the fact he trained in a 20-yard pool – well shorter than the 50-meter pools at the Olympic Games.

By his junior year, he was an NCAA All-American.

Yorzyk’s career came at a fortuitous time in the history of the stroke. The butterfly had developed in the 1930s as a style of swimming breaststroke. While the overarm stroke was allowed, the dolphin kick was against the rules of FINA, the world governing body. Finally, butterfly was established as an individual stroke in 1952.

Yorzyk’s coach, Charles E. “Red”  Silvia at Springfield College, pioneered  the technique of two dolphin kicks for each arm action. The school is also known as “the Birthplace of Basketball.”

Smith explained in The Republican that the previous method had swimmers doing
one arm cycle followed by five or six kicks.

“The thinking was that the shoulders couldn’t take it unless there was kicking time in between,” Smith said. “Red proved that by changing the kicks, the arm cycle became all the more efficient.”

So, Yorzyk, the late starter, never knew any other way of doing the stroke.

“We came together at the right time – serendipity,” Yorzyk said.

As a graduate assistant at Springfield, Yorzyk went to the 1955 Pan American Games, where he won the bronze in the 200 butterfly and gold in the 4 x 200 freestyle relay.

Like A Ping-Pong Ball

He trained for the 1956 U.S. Olympic Trials mostly in Springfield’s 20-yard pool, occasionally driving to Yale, which had the only 50-meter pool in New England.

“I did 18 to 20 miles a day – morning, noon and night,” he told The Republican. “I lived in that pool. It was like I was a Ping-Pong ball, bouncing back and forth.”

That’s 88 laps to the mile.

In Melbourne, Yorzyk actually swam faster in the heats – 2:18.6. After securing the gold in the final, he said that when he heard the national anthem, he experienced “a feeling of exhilaration that I never had before and haven’t had since. I knew I was representing my team, my college, my sport and my country.”

Springfield College eventually got a bigger pool, Linkletter Natatorium, in 1968 and that’s where Yorzyk’s Olympic gold medal is housed.

"You'll find it nailed to the wall (at Linkletter Natatorium)," he said in 2012. "I gave it to the college out of gratitude because Springfield and Red Silvia did so much for me. Besides, I feel that seeing the medal might inspire some of the young athletes on campus."

He set 11 world records and won the U.S. national outdoor title four times from 1955-58 before  retiring in 1960 at age 26.

Yorzyk  joked to The Republican that like previous Olympic champions Johnny Weissmuller and Buster Crabbe, he could have gone to Hollywood as Tarzan, “but I couldn’t do the Tarzan yell.”

Instead, he attended medical school at the University of Toronto. He joined the U.S. Air Force Medical Corps and was stationed in Japan. During the Olympic Games Tokyo 1964, he announced the Olympics on U.S. Armed Forces Radio and was also associate physician to the Olympic team in 1964, according to the ISHOF.

Yorzyk returned to competition as a record-breaking masters swimmer.

According to “The Complete Book of the Olympics,” by David Wallechinsky, Yorzyk was even faster as he got older:

“In 1984 Yorzyk, then a 57-year-old anesthesiologist, swam the 200-yard butterfly in 2:11.0 – faster than he did in his athletic heyday.”