Peter Williams grew up swimming at his local high school - Grey High, in Port Elizabeth, and after a winning three medals at the 1987 South African swimming championships, he accepted a scholarship to the University of Nebraska - ten years before Penny Heyns would follow in his footsteps to Lincoln, Nebraska.
What followed is history...
Peter Rowan Williams was born 20 June 1968 in Port Elizabeth, where he attended the Grey High School, where his first coach was school coach Tom Connell (above). In 1986 he was awarded a swimming scholarship at the University of Nebraska. He set a new world record in the 50 metre freestyle in a Time Trial the day after the 1988 NCAA Championships, on 10 April 1988. Williams covered the distance in 22.18 seconds, knocking .05 off the mark held by Tom Jager. Even though the International Swimming Federation (FINA) did not recognize South Africa, it had recognized previous records by South Africans, notably the 100-meter mark set by Jonty Skinner
In 1987 he won the 50, 100 and 200 metre freestyle events at the South African Championships.
Peter with Grey High school coach Tom Connell
Discussion: ...thru the last 20 years this has been a very controversial subject. The obvious case of this is when Peter Williams set the World Record in a Time Trial the day after the 1988 NCAA Championships on 4-10-88. About 15 days prior to this at the Nationals in Orlando, Tom Jager broke his own WR in the 50 Meter Free of :22.32 and went a :22.23 swimming against Matt Biondi who went :22.42 in this 8 swimmer heat. Peter Williams competed at the NCAA Championships and didn't final in the 50 Yard Free and went :19.89 and swam to first in the consolation heat at :19.78 swimming for Nebraska. The day after the meet the bulkheads were moved back and swimming in a time trial 50 meter Free all by himself he went :22.18 to break Tom Jager's 15 day record.
There was a lot of outcry about this swim because the SCY time really didn't match up to the LCM time. Tom Jager and Matt Biondi criticized this World Record if it were to stand. At that time South Africa was an apartheid nation and there was a rumor that the record would not count for that reason. There were sensionalized stories about the conditions of the race and the swim was bogus. I happen to talk to Dale Neuburger about this about 4 weeks ago and he was there at IUPUI Natatorioum when this swim took place and said every FINA requirement was made in this World Record breaking swim. Peter Williams was not very big or tall and that would probably explain the reason why his short course swim did not match this World Record effort.
FINA was suppose to review this and render a decision. A decision was not made by the 1988 Olympics and there Matt Biondi broke the record by .04 with a :22.14 and won the gold medal in the 50 Meter Free. Peter Williams did not swim in the Olympics because South Africa was banned then. To this day the swim was never recognized as a World Record but remains in lists of the top 100 times of all time for the 50 Meter Free. Most people assume that because FINA did not count this as a World Record that it was because he was from the country of South Africa and not because it was from a time trial. Others think with the public outcry that maybe FINA did not want to count this swim from the time trial as a World Record. There was never a press release explaining any of this and it was just kind of forgotten. In the modern era of FINA World Records since 1957, that Peter Williams would be the only swimmer in history to be discriminated against getting a World Record because of this.
Peter the Great
On the eve of the South African Olympic Trials at the Kings Aquatic Centre in Durban, South Africa, all eyes (and diehard swimming result junkies like me) will be following the ups and downs of the SA results; who makes the team, who misses out, and who surprises! Those who have somewhat followed the swimming results in South Africa over the last decade will of course remember the “upset” 4×100 freestyle relay at the 2004 Games in Athens, Greece; or, how about the great breaststroke performances from Penny Heyns and Terence Parkin in the 2000 Games in Sydney (Bronze and Silver respectively). Finally, nobody in swimming has forgotten the great Jonty Skinner, whose career was made complicated by the unforgettable Apartheid.
Unbeknownst to many swimming fans of South Africa, there has been a coach quietly yet methodically tinkering away with swim technique and training theories for the past 15 years. His name is Peter Williams. Peter was a swimmer, not a good swimmer…an AMAZING swimmer. He was once the worlds’ fastest man! On April 10th, 1988, Peter broke the World Record in the 50m freestyle. His time of 22.18 is still considered fast when compared to all the crazy “suit enhanced” times of the last few years. Unfortunately, as was the case earlier on with Jonty Skinner, the political situation in South Africa prevented Peter from attending the Olympic Games in Seoul, South Korea in the summer of 1988. The only appearance Peter made at the 1988 Games was in the whisperings and conversations of some coaches and top swimmers that Peter’s time was, “the time to beat!”
Not long after, Peter had a short, yet successful career at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (when they still had a men’s swimming team). He received a scholarship, swam for the team and reached the NCAA finals. In 1992, with the fall of Apartheid, Peter was finally able to go for GOLD during the Barcelona Games in Spain–result…4th place, the “chocolate medal.” This unfortunate result, however, probably sparked the journey which Peter would undertake…the next 5 years Peter would dabble in the world of coaching, and fortunately, for a privileged group of athletes, especially 2 young men, Peter would find his calling with a small club in Johannesburg, South Africa named WATERBORN…
Peter the Great, Part II (the rise of Dom and Jean)
The first time I met Peter Williams was in 2003 at the Summer National Championships in Switzerland. He was there to support his young, but very talented 200 freestyle swimmer, named Dominik Meichtry (“Dom” as most people call him, is a Swiss Citizen but trained exclusively with Peter in Johannesburg from 2000 to 2005). I enjoyed talking with Peter about swimming; his ideas were interesting and refreshing. We made a plan to speak more, but unfortunately Peter would have to rush back to South Africa to rejoin his team. This was a definite missed opportunity for me. I would meet up with Peter again during the preparation camp for the 2004 Athens Olympics. This camp was held in a beautiful part of Switzerland on the shores of the Lago Maggiore. I found Peter at the pool during a rest period for the athletes. He was alone in the pool…swimming. His freestyle was PERFECT! I could not believe that 16 years after he swam the World’s fastest 50 meter time, he could look so smooth…flowing and majestic.
I of course bombarded Peter with questions about swimming technique and more specifically, how he worked with Dominik. I listened to every word. While he was explaining his theory of freestyle and training, he referred several times to another young athlete he had on his squad named Jean Basson.
Dominik joined forces with Peter in 2000, and actually just by chance! Dominik (actually Swiss) had just moved to South Africa from Hong Kong. His father’s work brought the Meichtry family to South Africa and “Dom” attended a German speaking school where he met another Swiss youngster named Gregory Widmer. Gregory himself was no joke in the swimming pool as he went on to split a 48.63 on the Swiss relay at the Rome World Championships. Gregory convinced Dominik to come join his swim team and thought his coach (Peter) would accept “Dom” into the squad. Dominik first met Peter while on crutches after a severe skiing accident in Switzerland. Peter emphasized that his team was primarily “technique” oriented, and if Dominik wanted more volume, he should seek out another coach. Fortunately, he did not! Jean Basson was already a member of the small team in Johannesburg, and the two athletes would begin a journey together that has an almost “Hollywood” ending. These two young men, who would train side by side for all those years in a small corner of Johannesburg, would go their separate ways; Jean to Arizona and Dominik to Berkeley. They would on August 10th, 2008 do the unthinkable and qualify 1st and 2nd for the semi-finals of the 200m freestyle at the Beijing Olympic Games. (Dominik 1:45.80 and Jean 1:46.31)
Is it just coincidence that Peter Williams coached 2 young men to the pole positions–lane 4 and 5 of the Olympic semi-final 200m freestyle? The answer must certainly be NO! When you get to know this coach, and listen to his passion for swimming and how it is more than just a sport, that it teaches us about life, and its challenges; then you really understand the potential of this incredible swimming mentor.
Peter continues to work with some incredible young talents in South Africa, and though he has not always conformed to the requests of some of the administrators of the South African Swimming Federation, Peter is, and will continue to be as talented a coach as he was a swimmer…WORLD CLASS!!!
In a blog just after the Olympic games in Beijing 2008 Peter wrote, “Jean and Dom choose to believe in themselves. They have each overcome immeasurable odds to achieve international status as specialist free “stylers”. In the crazy world of competitive chaos they have created order and understanding. As their coach and friend I am humbled by their conviction and faith in the Waterborn process. Life has affirmed the relationship between the three of us. We share an unbreakable bond. Jean and Dom have helped me complete one of life’s circles. Thank you!” PW
Barcelona Olymic Games - Men's 50 metres Freestyle Final:
|1||Aleksandr Popov||20||Unified Team||EUN||21.91||OR|
|2||Matt Biondi||26||United States||USA||22.09|
|3||Tom Jager||27||United States||USA||22.30|
|4T||Peter Williams||24||South Africa||RSA||22.50|
He placed third in the 50 metre freestyle at the 1994 Commonwealth Games, and fourth at the 1992 Summer Olympics. At the Olympics he also competed on the South African teams in 4×100 metre freestyle relay and 4×100 metre medley relay, but without reaching the final.
He is currently the Coach of the Waterborn Swimming Club and Transvaal ASA. The Club successfully produces Swimmers participating and performing at Provincial, National and International level. His club is the winner of the Central Gauteng Aquatics Long course championship. Peter is a qualified ASA Level 3 Coach.
The spawning of a 'New Generation'
In 2008 Peter's Waterborn swimming club published this, quoted from a Supersport website:
espite all the melodrama of the past few weeks South Africans, athletes and the general populace, have finally realized what a monstrous event the Olympic Games is. However despite controversy there has been a spawning of a new generation of athletes.
South African middle distance freestyle ace, Jean Basson impressed with his mature, articulate and consise pre games interview on Supersport which was not only a credit to this talented athlete but to his excellent support mechnism that has been his extended Waterborn family.
His comments about progress and more specifically the advice his coach Peter Williams gave, knocked my sox off !
Good on you Peter.
Nice touch Jean.
After the semi final of the 200m freestyle event, Basson sent this text message to Williams,
“How many people would have thought that Waterborn would have had two guys in the final of the 200 free at the Olympics? I know of three for sure – me, Dom and you! Congrats Pete. It’s a tribute to your awesome coaching abilities and what an amazing person you are! I am so proud to represent you and Waterborn.”
So mission accomplished and history will record that Basson went on to gain South Africas highest placing at the Beijing Olympic Games in the pool with a creditable fourth in amongst some of the greatest freestylers the world has known.
But where did it all start.
Peter has responded in the Waterborn monthly newsletter which was passed onto me and I feel duty bound to share this with you :
"It’s a privilege to have watched an Olympic Games in its entirety.
During South Africa’s sports isolation we were fortunate to watch any international events. My coach was Scottish and sourced BBC recordings of the Olympics which we would watch many months later (though always after training and maybe if the water temperature dipped below 10º C).
In 1988 as a World Record Holder I hoped to see my name on the Seoul Olympic events programme. However, a last minute protest by the United States had Tom Jager’s name reinstated in the programme (South Africa was not an official member of FINA). I chose not to watch and instead applied pent up energy into training that week.
In 1992 South Africa’s last minute (you have no idea) readmission allowed me to participate in the first international competition of my athletic career. In order to stay focused on my event, I spent my time and creative thoughts in Barcelona’s art museums rather than get caught up in the catastrophe that was taking place in the South African residence in the Olympic Village (some of our relays and individual entries had been omitted). I had a great time in the best city in the world and was proud of my performance despite not having trained much during my 3 years prior to Barcelona (I had stopped swimming owing to injuries and insufficient means or motive to continue training).
I missed the 1996 Atlanta Olympics despite having achieved the qualifying time. I was unfairly victimized for publicly criticizing Swimming South Africa and N.O.C.S.A.. I was subsequently victimized by being unlawfully banned from competitions during my build-up to Olympic Trials owing to an article I had written commenting on the pedantic Olympic support programme. While many of my friends from all over the world were competing, I treated myself to a trans-continental road trip cruise across Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, Montana, the Pacific North West and Alaska. Treat yourself to something similar at least once in your lifetime…..
By 1997 I was coaching and promised myself to not watch any international swimming event until one of my swimmers was participating. Sydney 2000 was a yawn since my training programme had not yet produced a qualifier (can anyone tell me something interesting about Australia?). Besides I lived in a commune with mates at the time and nothing could have distracted us from fun!!!
By 2004 Waterborn’s 8-year plans had kicked in. Dominic Meichtry became the training programme’s first Olympian. The good-natured Swiss and generous Meichtry family treated coach and athlete to 3 months in Europe before the Olympics. Dom and I enjoyed a unique life opportunity to share a special period of our lives together. I traveled to Athens solo where Dom achieved a semi-final in the 200m Free. Happily I saw the S.A. 4 x 100m freestyle World-Record and Olympic gold performance, after having humorously argued with the American relay coach shortly beforehand that they stood no chance against South Africa. Not to be outdone though, or underdone, I celebrated in fine style at the Zurich Love Parade with 1.5 million other highly spirited folk.
The 2008 Olympic games however had me glued to the television, albeit at 4 a.m.
The Beijing Olympics has been the most significant international swimming event in history. The quality of athletes participating, depth in performance, World and Olympic Records and of course Michael Phelps’ superhuman effort have left the international swimming fraternity agasp; with good reason. The sport of swimming has experienced a watershed event. Never again will a swimmer be internationally competitive purely because of physical talent. Swimming has been a late arrival in the world of professional sport but has announced its arrival in an unprecedented and mind-blowing style.
South Africans (athletes and the general populace) have finally realized what a monstrous event the Olympic Games is.
And amidst all the melodrama of the past few weeks two extremely calm and collected, well prepared and well-rehearsed young Waterborn 200m freestylers Cooley went about their races with the maturity of post gold-medalist world record holders. Dom and Jean have quietly become the 7th and 8th fastest 200m freestyle performers of all-time.
You may be excited by an All-Black / South African encounter or some other sporting event. Fortunately I realized early in my coaching life that watching one’s protégé’s outperform themselves, at whatever level of competition, is the biggest thrill.
So, despite numerous debates in the public arena about malcontent amongst administrators, coaches and athletes, inadequate financial resources, mismanagement, false confidence, under preparedness and disorganization, Waterborn’s two undersized 200m freestyle specialists maintained their focus throughout and sensibly managed their emotional intensity with the good sense Waterborn and their respective families have instilled in their competitive psyche.
By consistently applying great technique, developing a healthy self-esteem and positive attitude towards overcoming life’s obstacles, rehearsing superior race-strategy and following a well-planned, structured scientific based training programme you can upset the world’s best, and ultimately outperform yourself.
Nothing beats positive life-force……it costs nothing, and everything you put into sustaining it makes you stronger and wiser for the next life challenge.
Jean and Dom choose to believe in themselves. They have each overcome immeasurable odds to achieve international status as specialist free “stylers”. In the crazy world of competitive chaos they have created order and understanding. As their coach and friend I am humbled by their conviction and faith in the Waterborn process.
Life has affirmed the relationship between the three of us. We share an unbreakable bond. Jean and Dom have helped me complete one of life’s circles. Thank you!
With kindest regards
(Former World 50m freestyle record holder, former Swiss Coach & former Team SA coach)
Peter Williams we the aquatics fraternity of South Africa salute you for your dedication and contribution to a sport that has at times not been kind to you.
You are without a doubt, my coach of the year !
May you continue to serve as an inspiration to promising athletes and that Waterborn continues to contribute positively to the "Spawning of a new Generation".
1991 Cape Town nationals, with Andre Stadler who finished second in the 50m freestyle behind Pete. The Western Province official was team manager Andre Olivier.