Two opposite Olympic tales from the Titanic

The luxury White Star liner 'Titanic', which sank on its maiden voyage to America in 1912, seen here on trials in Belfast Lough.  (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)
The luxury White Star liner 'Titanic', which sank on its maiden voyage to America in 1912, seen here on trials in Belfast Lough. (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

The Olympic Games are full of champions, records and stories, but they’re also an incredible encyclopaedia of strange, funny, emotional and sad moments. We’ll dig some out every week to put a smile on your face or a tear in your eye. This week: The story of two Olympians who survived the Titanic tragedy. 

The background

The year 1912 saw one of the worst maritime disasters in history: The RSM Titanic tragedy.

The story itself is well known; the world's largest vessel, an iceberg, the sinking ship and the string quartet valiantly playing on. A total of 1,496 people died, around two thirds of the 2,208 people aboard the ship that sank in the Atlantic Ocean.

The coincidences

The Titanic disaster occurred on 15 April 1912, less than a month before the Games of the V Olympiad were celebrated in Stockholm.

Coincidentally, the Titanic was also the second of three ships named as Olympic-class ocean liners. Other than that you might presume there were no more connections between the Olympic Games and the Titanic.

But that was not the case.

There were in fact two Olympians aboard the Titanic. Two Olympians with opposite stories. Two Olympians who looked death in the face: Richard Norris Williams and Cosmo Edmund Duff-Gordon.

The bright side: Richard Norris Williams

Norris Williams was among those who boarded the Titanic on that fateful journey. At the time, the 21-year-old American tennis player was travelling alongside his father, Charles Duane, and was dreaming of returning to home soil and winning the US Open.

Norris Williams and his father were travelling first class and had dinner with the ship’s captain, Edward Smith, the night when the young tennis star's dreams began to fall apart.

As the ship sank, both Norris Williams and his father remained aboard. But as the ship plunged further into the water, they decided to jump and try to swim.

Norris Williams’ father didn’t make it - it is believed that he was struck by a section of the ship. But Norris Williams survived in the freezing water for six hours, clinging to a life jacket.

Earlier, Norris Williams and his father had given their life jackets to other passengers. At one point the Olympian also broke down a door to rescue a trapped passenger, earning himself a reprimand from a member of the crew.

Both of these acts made Richard and Charles Norris Williams heroes in the midst of tragedy.

The six hours spent in the water meant Norris Williams’ legs were completely frostbitten by the time he was rescued. The doctors suggested they should be amputated, but Norris Williams refused: “I’m going to need these legs."

And his decision turned out to be the right one. Just 12 weeks after the catastrophe, he was back on the court playing a tennis match against Karl Behr... who was also a survivor of the Titanic.

The London Independent quoted Behr as saying, “Although the sinking of the Titanic was dreadful... the four days among the sufferers on the Carphathia was much worse and more difficult to forget.”

It was on the Carphathia - a ship that was sent to rescue survivors of the Titanic - that Behr and Williams, a Harvard man, first met, the International Hall of Fame reported.

"Twelve weeks after miraculously surviving, Williams and Behr forged yet another chapter in their life long bond, playing each other in the first round of the Longwood Challenge Bowl just outside of Boston. Williams was a rising star, Behr at the tail end of his career."

Behr may have won that day, but Norris Williams has never forgotten about his dream of winning.

He clinched his first US Nationals individual title just two years after the shipwreck, a feat he repeated in 1916.

But in that same year, he was forced to put his career on hold following the outbreak of World War I. After fighting in the war, he was awarded with the Croix de Guerre and the Legion of Honor.

But still his tennis dream lived on.

Finally, at the Paris 1924 Olympic Games - 12 years after the Titanic disaster - he achieved Olympic glory, winning the gold medal in the mixed doubles event.

This time, he fulfilled every one of his dreams - even after the nightmare he had lived through.

The dark side: Sir Cosmo Edmund Duff-Gordon

While Norris Williams was widely considered a hero following the Titanic disaster, Duff-Gordon, the second Olympian aboard, didn't receive the same plaudits.

While Norris Williams was a rising star when he boarded the Titanic, Duff-Gordon had already reached the highest levels of his sport.

At the Athens 1906 Olympic Games, the British fencer had won the silver medal in the épée men’s team event.

At the time of the Titanic voyage, Duff-Gordon was 49-years-old and had already been knighted. He travelled in first class along with his wife, fashion designer Madame Lucile.

However, some newspapers reported at the time that his manners were somewhat questionable for a man of his stature.

Contrary to the 'women and children first' rescue principle that was applied when the Titanic was sinking, Duff-Gordon left on the first lifeboat along with only 11 other passengers - even though the capacity of each boat was 40.

Moreover, he allegedly offered money to the crew so that they wouldn't return to fill up the lifeboat. As a result of these actions, he came to be known as 'The Coward of the Titanic'.