In 1930 Coach Mike Peppe introduced varsity swimming to The Ohio State University, and the sport has produced numerous champions ever since. Under Peppe the swim team earned 12 Big Ten Championships, 11 NCAA National Championships, and 10 AAU National Championships. Along with those accomplishments Peppe coached 312 individual champions, countless world record holders, and sent nine of the 25-member swim team to the 1952 Summer Olympics. The three Buckeyes who have earned gold medals in swimming are Ford Hiroshi Konno, Yoshinobu “Yoshi” Oyakawa, and William “Bill” Melving Smith, who all trained under Coach Peppe.
With much assistance from Rusty Wilson’s “The Ohio State University at the Olympics,” an amazing resource for anyone who wants to know more about the University’s connection to the Olympic Games, we can tell you more about these athletes:
The son of Japanese immigrants, Ford Hiroshi Konno was named by his father, an auto mechanic, after the Model-T Ford. At age nine, Konno joined his first swimming class in Hawaii, and by high school he was setting world records.
In 1950 former OSU Olympian Bill Smith saw Konno swim in Hawaii and began recruiting him to join The Ohio State University swim team. At OSU, Konno and Peppe devised a new training program that included shining a beam of light onto the water to help Konno maintain his pace. In 1952 Konno and several other Buckeyes traveled to the Helsinki Olympic Games. There, Konno won two gold medals – one in the 1500-meter freestyle race and another in the 4×200-meter freestyle relay – and a silver medal in the 400-meter freestyle race. After returning from the games, Konno married his high school sweetheart and fellow Olympian, Evelyn Kawamoto. Four years later, at the 1956 Olympic Games in Melbourne, Konno won a silver medal in the 4×200-meter relay.
In 1957, Konno entered the U.S. Army and was stationed in Hawaii, where he coached and developed the Schofield Sharks Swim Club. By 1959 Konno had received his bachelor of science degree in Education, and had earned the most individual titles – 31 – of any OSU athlete at the time. In 1977 Konno was selected for The Ohio State University Athletic Hall of Fame.
It took only three years for Yoshinobu “Yoshi” Oyakawa, another native Hawaiian, to go from the beginning of his swimming career – at age 16 – to winning gold at the Olympics. In 1952 Oyakawa, whom Peppe recruited at a Seattle swim meet to attend The Ohio State University, traveled with Konno and several other Buckeyes to the Helsinki Olympic Games. There, he won the gold medal in the 100-meter backstroke. While at OSU Oyakawa won six Big Ten titles, seven NCAA championships, and nine National AAU championships.
In March 1956 Oyakawa received his bachelor of science degree in Education and enlisted in the U.S. Air Force. In 1978 Oyakawa was selected for The Ohio State University Athletic Hall of Fame.
Suffering from typhoid at age 11, William “Bill” Melvin Smith first started swimming when his father brought him to the beach to help him recover. In 1942, Smith enrolled at Ohio State, and though he was not eligible to participate in NCAA sports as a freshman, he still managed to set seven world records and two American records at AAU events. While at OSU, his teammates called him “The Whale” because of his size. (He weighed 215 pounds.)
Smith’s swimming career at OSU was cut short by World War II; Smith entered the U.S. Navy where he served for four years. When he returned to OSU, many wondered how well he would swim, given the long absence from the water. In 1948, though, Smith traveled to the 1948 London Olympic Games, where he won gold medals in the 400-meter freestyle race and the 4×200-meter freestyle relay. After his victories, University of Michigan Swim Coach Matt Mann was quoted as saying “Some guys can swim the greatest race of his life but ‘Smitty’ will always do just a little better.”
By the time Smith earned his bachelor of science degree in Education in 1950, he had captured seven NCAA titles and 15 AAU Championships. Smith was selected for The Ohio State University Athletic Hall of Fame in 1977 and named The Ohio State University Swimmer of the Century in 2001.