Northampton’s Bill Yorzyk, trailblazing Olympic gold medalist, remembered 

  • Northampton native Bill Yorzyk, who won a gold medal in the 200-meter butterfly at the 1956 Summer Olympics, died Sept. 2 at his home in East Brookfield. He was 87. COURTESY YORZYK FAMILY

  • Northampton native Bill Yorzyk competes in the butterfly for Springfield College in the early 1950s. COURTESY YORZYK FAMILY

  • Yorzyk, a Northampton native, enjoyed spending his time outdoors. COURTESY YORZYK FAMILY

  • Northampton native Bill Yorzyk is shown in a Sports Illustrated “Olympic Preview Issue” from Nov. 19, 1956. Yorzyk, who won a gold medal in the 200-meter butterfly at the 1956 Summer Olympics and had a long career as an anesthesiologist, died Sept. 2 at his home in East Brookfield. He was 87. COURTESY YORZYK FAMILY

  • Northampton native Bill Yorzyk is shown in a 1954 Springfield College yearbook. Yorzyk, who won a gold medal in the 200-meter butterfly at the 1956 Summer Olympics and had a long career as an anesthesiologist, died Sept. 2 at his home in East Brookfield. He was 87. COURTESY YORZYK FAMILY

  • Northampton native Bill Yorzyk is shown following a swim in this undated photo. Yorzyk, who won a gold medal in the 200-meter butterfly at the 1956 Summer Olympics, died Sept. 2 at his home in East Brookfield. He was 87. COURTESY YORZYK FAMILY

  • Head Springfield College swimming and diving coach Red Silvia, right, kneels beside the pool with Bill Yorzyk, second from right, and two other swimmers in this 1954 photo. Yorzyk, who won a gold medal in the 200-meter butterfly at the 1956 Summer Olympics, died Sept. 2 at his home in East Brookfield. He was 87. COURTESY SPRINGFIELD COLLEGE

  • Bill Yorzyk, left, a 1954 Springfield College graduate and 1956 Olympic gold medalist in the 200-meter butterfly, is shown at the school in 2017. Yorzyk died Sept. 2 at his home in East Brookfield. He was 87. COURTESY SPRINGFIELD COLLEGE

  • Bill Yorzyk, right, sits with his wife, Carrol, on the pool deck at Springfield College in 2016. COURTESY SPRINGFIELD COLLEGE

  • COURTESY SPRINGFIELD COLLEGE

Sports Editor
Published: 9/18/2020 6:59:01 PM
Modified: 9/18/2020 6:58:48 PM

Northampton native Bill Yorzyk learned to swim in college and won a gold medal at the 1956 Summer Olympics.

His trailblazing butterfly technique changed the sport that over time saw record-breaking performances by Mark Spitz and Michael Phelps.

Yet, Yorzyk didn’t talk much about his Olympic achievements.

“He was more than that,” Jeff Yorzyk, his son, said.

Dr. Bill Yorzyk had a long career as an anesthesiologist, helping advance his craft. He swam into his 50s, and help advance the sport along the way.

Jeff Yorzyk described his father as humble – Bill Yorzyk donated his gold medal to Springfield College to thank his coach and inspire future swimmers.

“Being engaged and being a good person,” said Jeff about what his father took pride in.

Bill Yorzyk died at his home in East Brookfield on Sept. 2. He was 87. Yorzyk was surrounded by Carrol, his wife of 59 years, their children Jenn and Jeff, and their families.

Yorzyk, who graduated from Northampton High School in 1950 at the age of 16 and Springfield College in 1954, fondly recalled his Olympic experience with the Gazette in 2012.

“It’s still very much a thrill, and I remember every bit of it,” he said. “I was the only gold medalist on the men’s swim team in 1956, and I really had a great reception coming back to Northampton and Springfield College. That’s meant a great deal to me ever since.”

The 200-meter butterfly was first held at the 1956 Summer Olympics in Melbourne, Australia. Yorzyk’s winning time of 2 minutes, 19.3 seconds pales in comparison to today’s times, but the style he learned from his college coach changed swimming.

Yorzyk took a breath on every other stroke and applied two kicks for every arm stroke.

“The butterfly wasn’t introduced into the United States until 1952, and at nationals in ‘54 I saw a guy swimming the dolphin butterfly,” he recalled. “Before that, it had always been done with a breaststroke kick. I told myself I could do that, and off I went.”

Modern advances in pool technology and training have advanced the sport. Phelps, for example, won the 2016 Olympic gold medal in 1:53.36.

“I did bring that stroke along, initiating two kicks to every arm cycle as well as breathing every other stroke,” Yorzyk said. “Neither of those had ever been done before. I was able to sprint the final 35 meters because of those things. That’s an accomplishment I’m very proud of.”

Yorzyk learned to swim at Springfield College, which mandated all freshmen take a course in swimming. Longtime Springfield coach Charles “Red” Silvia taught Yorzyk his innovating butterfly technique.

By 1959, Yorzyk held 23 American records and set 11 world records. He was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame in 1971.

“That’s elite stuff that nobody can imagine, unless you go through it,” Yorzyk told the Gazette about his records. “It’s very difficult to try to put something together like that on that level. A lot of it was my competitive nature, and it was something I wanted to do, and I ended up really loving competitive swimming.”

Yorzyk attended medical school and coached at the University of Toronto, where he met Carrol, a nurse. Yorzyk served as captain in the U.S. Air Force Medical Corps and was stationed in Japan. During the 1964 Tokyo Games, he called the Olympics on U.S. Armed Forces Radio.

Yorzyk’s innovation didn’t end with the butterfly. In the 1970s, he used his swimming skills, knowledge of physiology and diving experience to assist in forming dive tables that are still used today. The longtime anesthesiologist also changed his field. He simplified epidural techniques to minimize side effects and pioneered the addition of the ICU and pain clinics at what is now Baystate Medical Center in Springfield.

Yorzyk continued his career as an athlete well into his 50s. In 1985, at the age of 52, he beat his winning Olympic time. Throughout the ’80s he continued to set records for his age group while participating in Masters meets.

Yorzyk spent the past 25 years living on Lake Quacumquasit in East Brookfield. He enjoyed spending time outdoors, making many canoe trips on the Connecticut River north of Northampton. He taught his children to swim at an early age.

Mike Moran can be reached at mmoran@gazettenet.com. Follow on Twitter @mikemoranDHG.



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