Bill Woolsey, a Hawaiian and IU's first NCAA swim champion, dies at 87

Coach Doc Counsilman built Indiana University into a swimming power. But before Counsilman arrived on campus, a Hawaiian named Bill Woolsey helped jump-start the program.

Woolsey, the Hoosiers’ first NCAA swimming champion, died Saturday in California. He was 87.

In 1952, he became an Olympic gold medalist before he enrolled at IU. At age 17, he was the youngest member of the U.S. swim team and took gold in the 800-meter freestyle relay at the Helsinki Olympics.

Pictured here in 1956, Bill Woolsey was an NCAA and Big Ten champion for the Hoosiers.
Pictured here in 1956, Bill Woolsey was an NCAA and Big Ten champion for the Hoosiers.

“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.”

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William Tripp Woolsey was born Sept. 13, 1934, in Honolulu.  He grew up in Manoa Valley, where a street is named after his family. The Woolsey Poi company had a farm in the valley.

He lived on the shoreline and was introduced to the water as soon as he could walk. When he was 5 or 6, he once said, he was able to go free-diving and fish with a spear and a sling. By age 8 or 9, he was swimming competitively.

Eventually, he was introduced to Soichi Sakamoto. Sakamoto, a schoolteacher and Boy Scout scoutmaster on Maui, developed a training program that included swimming against the current of a drainage ditch.  Nine swimmers with Hawaii ties competed in the 1952 and 1956 Olympics, four earning gold medals.

In 1937, Sakamoto started the Three-Year Swim Club, intending to produce swimmers for the 1940 Tokyo Olympics. The club’s motto: “Olympics first and Olympics always.”

The Three-Year Swim Club: The Untold Story of Maui’s Sugar Ditch Kids and Their Quest for Olympic Glory was a New York Times bestseller written by Julie Checkoway.

The 1940 Olympics were canceled because of World War II, but the club persisted. Sakamoto persuaded Woolsey to concentrate on swimming.

Woolsey, in a 2012 television interview, recalled Sakamoto’s pitch.

“You play basketball?”





“You gotta quit.”

“You surf?”



Woolsey spoke to his mother, and she agreed with the coach.

“‘You go down there and you swim, and give up everything,’” he remembered his mother saying. “ ‘And maybe that will keep you out of trouble.’”

Bill Woolsey, pictured here in 1955, was IU's first NCAA swim champion.
Bill Woolsey, pictured here in 1955, was IU's first NCAA swim champion.

He stayed out of trouble and made it onto the Olympic team. At Helsinki, he swam second leg on the 800 freestyle relay team that set an Olympic record of 8:31.1. Then he enrolled at IU, where the coach was Robert Royer.

As a junior in 1956, Woolsey won Big Ten titles in the 220-, 440- and 1,650-yard freestyles. He added NCAA titles in the 220 and 440, helping the Hoosiers to sixth in team standings.

He repeated those NCAA titles in 1957, and Indiana climbed to fourth. Also scoring for the Hoosiers were two other Hawaiians, Dick “Sonny” Tanabe and Ron Honda.

Woolsey won the 100-meter freestyle in 57.0 at the 1956 Olympic Trials but was no match for the Australians, who swept the medals at Melbourne. He finished sixth in 57.6. He finished 10th in heats of the 400 freestyle in 4:38.2, or 0.6 from the final.

Woolsey won his second Olympic medal, a silver in the 800 freestyle relay, far behind the Australians.

His international career continued through the 1959 Pan American Games at Chicago, where the 24-year-old won a bronze medal in the 100-meter freestyle.

He became a learn-to-swim advocate and was dismayed when he found so many Hawaiian children did not know how to swim. His life’s goal was to “teach as many kids to swim because we live on an island,” son Trip Woolsey told the Star-Advertiser.

Woolsey’s 10-lesson, Ho’au learn-to-swim method — Ho’au means “forward (in the) water” in Hawaiian — taught children in Hawaii and California. He taught swimming into his 70s.

“It was more about giving back to the younger generation,” Ikaika Woolsey said. “Swimming was his life.”

Woolsey is in the Hawaii Sports Hall of Fame but not the IU Athletics Hall of Fame.

Contact IndyStar reporter David Woods at Follow him on Twitter: @DavidWoods007.

This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: Bill Woolsey, a Hawaiian and IU's first NCAA swim champion, dies at 87