The 92-Year-Old Swimmer Breaking World Records and Inspiring Us All

In 2014, Oregon Masters-class swimmer Willard “Wink” Lamb broke five age-group records, bringing his current count to 14 world and 36 national marks. We talked to the athlete about aging, staying active, and what it takes to just keep swimming. 

By Mary Stutzman July 13, 2015 Published in the Health Annual: Summer 2015 issue of Portland Monthly

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I learned how to swim when I was 12 years old in Lake Sacajawea in Longview, Washington, where I went to school. I started out along the edge, dog-paddling. Then I’d see how far I could go overhand with one breath. By the next year I was competing with the other kids in the Longview YMCA. That was about 1935. In ’37 I was a freshman and I started swimming for R. A. Long High School. 

In 1939, our high school team won the state championship, and as far as I know it has never won it since. I started out swimming the 220, because I thought, “Well, nobody likes to swim the longest race that we have. If I can get used to the 220, I’ll have a place to swim.” That was my specialty. I still have the record time for the 220 in the state of Washington.

In the army, they shipped us to New Guinea in ’44 on a Victory ship. We could see coconuts floating around in the water. I don’t know if they told me to or not, but I slid down a rope and tied some coconuts on. It was real calm water, but it was salt water and when you swim in salt water like that at night, the phosphorus goes through and lights up the water. I had a real nice swim up to the other end of the ship and back. I really enjoyed that. The next morning over the PA system, they said, “There won’t be any more of that—there’s sharks in those waters!”

I swim backstroke more or less in commemoration of two buddies on my swim team in high school. They were both backstrokers, they could both beat each other, and Mel Johnson, he would’ve set a record at the state meet, but two weeks before the state meet he got acute appendicitis and died. And Bill Gaudette, he went into the navy, on the Arizona, and he’s still there. The Arizona got bombed at Pearl Harbor. Good man; good swimmer, too. So thinking of them, I thought, “Well, I’m gonna do some backstroke and see what I can do with that.”

I laid off swimming for 60 years—until ’02, when I retired from being a carpenter. We were coming to Lake Shore Athletic and I found that I could swim without stopping. So in ’06, I started swimming competitions again.

In 1937, my first coach was Wally Holden. Thirty years ago he got into Masters swimming, and we kind of kept up with his news clippings through the years. When I found I could still swim, I called him up and he told me to come down. Since then I’ve been in 55 swim meets. 

Frank Piemme, from San Diego—he’s my competition. He’s in my age group, although I’m a couple years older. When we were in Atlanta, he was signed up to be on the 200-meter block next to me, but he didn’t show up so I got the first place medal. But he’s the guy who will be breaking my records.

It hasn’t all been clear sailing. I had a shoulder operation—two tendons sewed up in 2012. Got in a car accident, that shoulder went out and I couldn’t raise my arm. Since then I do therapy five days a week, but I do what I can to keep that shoulder going.

I have to have some exercise, and like the Aqua Master newsletter says, swimming is for life. I don’t know who came up with that, but I believe it. I’ve been pretty fortunate with my health, and it gives you something to do—an interest. And it’s really a fun thing to be associated with the people. You have all the age groups, the women and the men. It’s been a fun experience for me in my life. I think it keeps you away from the doctor. 

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