In 1922, adventurous twin boys were born to Mr. and Mrs. Lamb of Longview, WA. Millard and Willard had names so similar that nether boy knew who was being called. So, Willard became Wink, and that’s what his friends have called him for nearly a century.
On Sunday, January 30, 2022, Wink participated in his first US Masters swim meet in the 100-104-year-old age group. It was just a single race, but as is his custom, Lamb was attempting to break multiple World Records in a single swim. He targeted the 200, 400, 800, and 1500-meter times. But to get any of them, Wink needed to complete the entire swim without being disqualified. Anyone who has swum the 1500 knows this is easier said than done.
The Bellevue Mile has just one event, and unlike most meets, it’s seeded fastest to slowest. After warming up, Wink needed to wait until the eighth heat to compete. He and his son, Doug, sat for about four hours waiting to race. When it was time to swim, Lamb had lost all of the benefits a good warm-up creates. And he hadn’t eaten since his bowl of oatmeal at breakfast!
Willard was a paratrooper in World War II, and he’s still fearless. The starting blocks at the Bellevue Athletic Club are the highest allowed by swimming’s governing bodies at 29.5 inches above the water level, but with some help to balance him, Wink ascended to the top. Note: most of the competitors in the last two heats started from in the water to avoid the lunge and drop to the water surface.
The early going was slow and steady. Wink’s arms looked heavy and his pace was not as quick as five years ago when he broke nine World Records in just six swims at the USMS National Championship in the 95-99-year-old age group. When Wink was competing in high school and college, flip turns hadn’t been invented. Instead, “spin turns” allowed the swimmer to switch directions in the fastest way. Lamb’s spin turns looked crisp at the beginning of the race, but he switched to open turns as he tired. Willard had succumbed to the slower open turns to relieve his oxygen-starved lungs.
Even with open turns, Willard’s time looked good. At 200 meters he clocked 5:01.11. His 400 time was 10:05.73. He was holding the pace. But at 800 meters he was at 20:23.87 and it was clear Wink was tiring. Wink had completed the 1-hour Postal swim two weeks before, so we were confident he would finish, but Wink had a surprise for his fans!
Soon after the 800-meter mark, the open turns disappeared and the faster spin turns were back. Wink was finding his groove. His pace quickened, his stroke looked sharp, and he was in his element. Through the first 800 meters, Lamb averaged 2:32.98 per 100 meters. In the last 700 meters, he shaved over 2 ½ seconds off each 100 meters. At 2:30.41, per 100 meters, he was negative splitting the swim! This is something only real distance swimmers accomplish, and Wink is the real deal. He was inducted into the Masters International Swimming Hall of Fame in 2019, with Olympians Rowdy Gaines and Rick Colella, because he is the genuine article.
Prior to the meet, Lamb had set 96 World Records in his illustrious swimming career. The 38:32.90 time in which he completed this race, gave him his 100th World Record! It seems only fitting he did this competing as a 100-year-old. Counting 50 and 100-meter splits, Wink also set six National Masters Swimming records!
Since the fast swimmers and their followers had left the pool hours earlier, only the Portland/Vancouver swimmers, who knew what Lamb could do, stayed the entire meet to witness the exhibition. Nevertheless, the timers, lifeguards and swimmers that remained could tell this was special, and they were observers of history. Everyone had their cameras out taking still shots or videos. It looked like the paparazzi had arrived to give this man his due. Willard’s son, Doug, counted the 60 lengths of the pool for his dad, and more of Wink’s relatives watched the feat from the pool deck. The crowd was small, but the mood was triumphant.
Some might say the competition is sparse in his age group, and that’s true. But Willard Lamb was a high school state champion and state record holder in the 220-yard freestyle. As of this weekend, he currently holds 26 World FINA Individual Records, plus numerous World Relay Records. He would have set many more World Records if he had started his Masters swimming career before age 83, as he routinely beats swimmers 20 years his junior at USMS National Championships. Wink’s main competition is the clock, and he’s been winning that battle for decades.
When Sunday’s race was over, all that the humble Willard said was, “My legs are a little tired.” And with a wry smile he said, “Maybe I should have warmed up.” As he set his sights on the upcoming meets in March and April, these newly acquired World Records will not likely be the last ones set by this national treasure.