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Bill Woolsey, who won a gold medal as a swimmer at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics, talks about his life in swimming as he works with Karina Garcia, 14, of Richmond in Richmond, Calif. on Wednesday, June 12, 2013. Woolsey is working to improve swimming education in his native state of Hawaii. (Kristopher Skinner/Bay Area News Group)

HERCULES -- Bill Woolsey traveled to his native Hawaii earlier this year, where he made a startling observation: "Three quarters of the kids in Hawaii don't know how to swim."

"And most of the parents don't know how to swim, either," added the Hercules resident and former Olympic swimming champion who has run the Woolsey Swim School since 1969, first in Hawaii, then in West Contra Costa County.

Woolsey, 78, who has been a high school swim coach in Hawaii and a swimming consultant to five private schools in Japan during a professional career spanning five decades, recently took on another gig, this one with the Hawaii Swimming Club, which he swam for back in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

The club is creating a swimming and water safety program for elementary school-age children that it plans to pitch to Honolulu's Department of Parks and Recreation. Woolsey left for an extended trip to Hawaii on Thursday morning.

"He's an excellent swim instructor; he's like a magician, turning non-swimmers into swimmers," said Keith Arakaki, assistant coach with the Hawaii Swim Club. "We're blessed to have his assistance."

Last week, Woolsey was at the Foxboro Downs neighborhood pool in Hercules watching granddaughter Lokelani Woolsey guide her little niece, Bill Woolsey's great-granddaughter Brelen Carson, 5, through the "Submerge" and "Floating" units of his 10-lesson, Ho'au learn-to-swim method -- Ho'au means, roughly, "forward (in the) water" in Hawaiian. He hopes to bring the method to the Honolulu parks.


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In Hawaii, "30, 40 years ago, swimming was compulsory in P.E," Woolsey said. Nowadays, "everything is land-based: football, baseball, track and field, soccer. Nothing to do with the water."

In a place where summer is eternal and water beckons everywhere, that can have tragic consequences, Woolsey believes, especially once kids reach middle school age.

"Most of the kids want to do board surfing," Woolsey said. "But the problem is, they don't know how to swim. They can barely tread water.

"They hang out on the beach; they see these guys surfing; they say, 'I want to do that,'" Woolsey said.

"Sometimes the surf is 400, 500 yards out, or farther," he continued. "Any kind of mishap, if they lose the board ... what happens then?"

The erosion of Hawaii's age-old swimming traditions is especially poignant for Woolsey, who learned to swim as a small child, a skill he parlayed into a gold medal at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics at age 17, as the youngest member of the United States' 800-meter freestyle relay team; he won a silver in the same event at the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne.

"When I was 5, 6 years old, I was learning how to go out and fish. Not pole fishing," he explained, "but free-diving, with a spear and a sling."

Nowadays, he said¿, parts of Hawaii, especially on Oahu, resemble much of Southern California it's replete with real estate speculators, high-rises and multiple-car garages. "We're screwing up the island," he said¿.

By the time Woolsey was 8 or 9, he was swimming competitively, but the foundation had been laid much earlier.

"We lived on the shoreline," he recalled, "and the first thing my dad did is he introduced all the family members to the water -- as soon as you knew how to walk.

"The older ones would pick you up and say, 'do this, do that.'Exactly what the older one is doing here," he added, turning to the pool, in the direction of Lokelani and Brelen.

"One of the exercises is, (Lokelani) submerges the little one (Brelen), to get rid of the fear," Woolsey said. Moments later, Brelen is floating faceup, with apparent ease and an expression of satisfaction.

"Teach them to relax on their back," Woolsey commented. "I try to instill it in their heads."

The thought took him back to a tragic accident in March 2001 that he remembered from news reports of a DeAnza High School student drowning while swimming across Lake Anza in Tilden Regional Park. The lake and its beach were closed that day, and no lifeguard was on duty. The student, a football player who friends said was a good swimmer, tired three-quarters of the way across the chilly lake and started to go under.

A fellow student tried to help, but the drowning youth clung to him and pulled him under. The would-be rescuer broke free and made it back to shore, but his friend did not resurface.

"If his buddies had some equipment, a belt or a stick, and said, 'Get on your back. Relax. Be calm. Don't panic,'" Woolsey said, virtually shouting the commands, "he might have cooled down. They might have been able to pull him in."

Bill Woolsey
Age: 78
Hometown: Hercules
Claim to Fame: Youngest member of gold medal 1952 U.S. Olympic 800-meter freestyle relay team; won silver medal in same event at the 1956 Olympics
Member of the Hawaii Sports Hall of Fame
Quote: "Some parents ask me, 'Why should my kid learn to swim?' My answer to them is: 'For the sake of your child. The life they save may be their own.' "