Severely affected by cerebral palsy, John Williams wore braces on his legs as a child, and a helmet to guard against injury in one of his many tumbles. But after learning to swim in his 20s, Williams never looked back. He emerged as an inspiring teacher and motivator, and an irrepressible promoter of the therapeutic benefits of swimming. He remained so for the next 40 years.
Williams’ passion was adaptive aquatics, a type of therapy first developed for disabled veterans returning from the Second World War. In the water, he overcame physical challenges that limited him on land, earning him a place at the International Swimming Hall of Fame, as the namesake of its International Adapted Aquatics Award, and helping him to become a mentor to many others.
Williams died Nov. 25, 2015 in San Diego. He was 70.
“He always believed he was put on Earth to inspire other people, to be happy,” said his brother, Grant Williams. “His cards said, ‘Be Happy, John Williams, Adaptive Aquatics Instructor.’ The idea was that if he, with all of his challenges, could manage to be happy, there’s no reason anyone else should be unhappy.
“He inspired me.”
Though cerebral palsy made it difficult for Williams to walk, it did not diminish his cognitive abilities, and he resented any assumptions that he was mentally impaired. For a time, Williams managed a bookstore in Virginia, and later he earned an associate’s degree and then a bachelor’s in recreational management from San Diego State University — a dream of his that he accomplished in his 50s after at least a decade of work.
Aquatics transformed his life, making him a living testament to the power of water. “Swimming was probably the first thing that he could really claim as something he excelled in, and something that made him more of an important person,” Grant said. “There was a whole world of adaptive aquatics in which John Williams was very important, well known to a lot of people across the country. It was huge.”
Grace underwater he was not. “It’s not like he ever had a smooth Australian crawl or anything,” his brother said. “He looked like a helicopter that had been downed in the water. His feet were thrashing, his arms were thrashing.”
Yet Williams was committed to showing others it simply didn’t matter. At one point, he volunteered at a camp for disabled children in San Diego called Camp Able. His brother recalled that Williams would ride his Omega motorized scooter to the parking area to greet children when they first arrived by bus. He would clamber out of his scooter and go down to the water’s edge, with puzzled youngsters looking on and other camp counselors feigning alarm.
“He’d splash into the water, and with his arms going in all directions, he’d get himself all the way across the bay, a couple of hundred yards, and turn around and swim back,” Grant said. “By that time the kids had figured out he wasn’t going to drown. He’d come out of the water and amble back to the Omega.”
Williams was the first recipient of ISHOF’s award for his specialty, which was subsequently called the John K. Williams Jr. International Adapted Aquatics Award. He remained active on the organization’s advisory board, in addition to writing and mentoring others. In going through his brother’s papers, Grant came across 10-year strategic plans for developing national adaptive aquatic programs that Williams had written.
For all of that, it was a pure joy of swimming that made the most difference in Williams' life. Initially afraid of the water, he came to learn it was his most important ally. “I could walk!” he stated in a letter to the Hall of Fame. “I could dance. I could stand on one foot. It was like flying.”
In lieu of flowers, contributions to the San Diego Chapter of United Cerebral Palsy Society are requested.