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Remembering a Runner on Remembrance Day

An Olympian, World Record Holder and WWII Veteran who inspired the Canadian Flag.

An Olympian, World Record Holder and WWII Veteran who inspired the Canadian Flag

A sea of poppies rustles in a cold November wind. The poppies are on sweaters, jackets and hoodies rather than lying like a red blanket on crosses, rows on rows. It’s Remembrance Day at the National War Memorial in Ottawa and the sombre cold seems appropriate as people stand for God save the Queen and clap as veterans parade past. The Canadian flags flap in the wind.

The National War Memorial in Ottawa on Remembrance Day.
The National War Memorial in Ottawa on Remembrance Day.

Looking at the red and white of the flag – I wipe my dripping nose and rub the mangy Movember moustache that grows below it. I think of my grandparents who met during WWII, one flying with the RCAF on the Lancaster bombers and my gramma who worked on the spitfires in England. I also think of a book I have just read that highlights another Canadian veteran, who was also an Olympian, world record holder and inspiration for the current flag of Canada.

The book is called “I Just Ran – Percy Williams, World’s Fastest Human” and it is a worthwhile read and an appropriate subject on a day of Remembrance on a running blog.

Percy Williams
Before contributing during WWII Percy Williams was one of Canada’s greatest sprinters. I had known the name but had never really read about Percy Williams and knew little. Being a voracious reader and a sucker for a book on running I picked up the book with the picture of Percy Williams in his Canadian uniform with the maple leaf on the front (before it was used for our flag). The book paints the scene of the harsh and simpler times of the early part of the 20th century in Vancouver, B.C. where Percy was born and would remain until his last days.

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Most well known for being the winner of both the 100m and the 200m in the 1928 Summer Olympics, Percy was not what you’d picture a modern day sprint champion to be. He is described as short, lean and muscled but in his early twenties at the time of his double gold medals and later as a world record holder – Usain Bolt would have outweighed him by around 80lbs.

The book.
The book.

The book is a good read and a sad story that I shall not spoil for anyone interested but I will simply throw out a few interesting facts that should entice you to either buy the book or hit google.

World War II
Percy trained hard, but little by today’s standards, did not really like to run, but liked to win. He shied from publicity at times and had a shyness that seems to grab hold of him and draw him closer as he grew older. He served in WWII like many other Canadians of the time. He joined up in 1940 as a ferry pilot but saw no overseas action – and Percy is said to have said he had been too old to be a fighter pilot.

That dark shyness that I alluded to, leads to the end of Percy Williams. I will tell you of it, for on Remembrance Day, it is a dark cold day where we remember those who have died, often lonely and cold as it was for Williams in the end. Never married, in his mother’s house, where he had lived with most of his life, with a gun he had been awarded in 1928 as a prize for his Olympic feat, alone Percy killed himself at the age of seventy-two.

Named to the Order of Canada, the inspiration for George Stanley, the designer of Canada’s maple leaf flag, Percy Williams also seems to have slipped quietly into history pulled there by his own reclusiveness.  Perhaps  things like the book and this blog entry will hopefully pull ththis interesting and great runner from the dusty pages o history and into a clearer light.

Below is a short youtube piece about Percy Williams.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DN-XuGxFTyA[/youtube]

YOUR SUGGESTIONS
As much as I like to write and ramble on about running figures and topics that I find or find interesting- I want to hear from you! Write in and tell me of someone I should highlight from the past, maybe its an Olympian, maybe it’s the local star who set records or an amazing Canadian runner, who was great but perhaps never first—suggest away.

See you on the roads or in the blogosphere.