While many Canyon Lakers have been watching the Olympics as armchair fans for the past couple of weeks – cheering the athletes through the thrill of victory or agony of defeat – one sport in particular brought back memories of glory for Jack Wamsley, who medaled in three swimming events in 1973 at the age of 42.
Jack’s accomplishment took place during the inaugural California Firemen’s Athletic Association Firemen’s Olympics in 1973; which brought back an even earlier memory of a time when he actually was invited to train for the U.S. Olympic Swim Team by the great swimming coach, Glen Hummer.
Jack’s road to the Firemen’s Olympics began many years earlier when he started swimming at the age of 10 in the crystal clear waters of a limestone quarry in Huntington, Indiana. It was when life was a little more simple and his adoptive parents were still alive.
Jack’s birth parents died in a train crash when he was just 2 years old. He was born Robert Glousier, though he’s not certain if that’s the correct spelling. After being orphaned, he was adopted by the Wamsley family. His adoptive mother died when he was 13, his adoptive father a year later – both of cancer.
Suddenly without a permanent family, Jack was forced to work for his own livelihood since, in that era, there were no local, state or federal social services to provide a safety net.
He found odd jobs with the railroad, at Montgomery Ward, and at other locations around Huntington. When he wasn’t living with one of five different families, he found a place to sleep at the YMCA. One thing he did exceptionally well was swim.
He was discovered by Coach Hummer, who invited him to join the Huntington YMCA junior swim team. Jack began swimming competitively at about the same time he lost his parents; and, in 1948, he won the Indiana State Championship in the 200-yard breaststroke. While training for the state championships, Jack swam five miles each day: two miles in the morning and three miles in the afternoon. Coach Hummer asked him if he wanted to train for the Olympics.
Glen Hummer coached Huntington YMCA swim teams from 1933 to 1977. During the 1960s his teams won the national title seven times and finished in 2nd twice. Hummer won the first National YMCA Coach of the Year Award in 1969 and his reputation as an outstanding swim coach spread.
In 1970, the Amateur Athletic Union of the United States honored Hummer by selecting him to coach the United States National Team for an extended tour. He was nominated for the coaching staff of the U. S. Swim Team for the 1971 Pan American Games, and in 1972 he was again selected for the coaching staff of the U. S. Swim Team for the Olympic Games in Munich. He attended four Olympiads: Rome, 1960; Tokyo, 1964; Mexico, 1968; and Munich, 1972. Two of his swimmers went on to win Olympic medals: Gary Dilley in Tokyo and Matt Vogel in Montreal.
Jack says his own National Championship picture is on the wall of the Olympic-size pool at Huntington College named for Glen Hummer.
These days Jack ponders what would have happened if he could have said yes to Hummer’s invitation to train for the Olympics. Unfortunately, the sport of swimming offered no scholarships at that time, and he desperately wanted to attend college. He decided foot ball was his ticket.
As fate would have it, he was given the opportunity to try out for wide receiver at Louisiana State University in 1949 but broke his leg on the way to tryouts. His athletic career was ended.
The Korean War broke out soon thereafter and he spent the next four years in the U.S. Air Force. When he got out, he moved to Southern California and attended USC for a year. He then took a job as assistant personnel manager at Wiser Lock Co. in South Gate, where he hired and married his wife Nancy (to whom he has been married for 60 years).
Jack had several friends who were firefighters, so he later joined the city fire department in Huntington Park, where he made $384 per month. That department eventually became part of LA County Fire. Since all firemen worked second jobs, Jack also went to work for the courier division of Armored Transport (remaining there 25 years and retiring as regional sales manager).
In 1973, Jack’s station crew urged him to compete in the inaugural Firemen’s Olympics. Although he hadn’t swam competitively for many years, he began a rigorous training schedule for one month prior to the event.
He ended up winning one silver and two bronze medals, with a 2nd in the 200-yard breaststroke, 3rd in 100-yard freestyle and 3rd in the individual medley (all three strokes). “I was very happy considering my age,” says Jack. “I felt lucky to win anything.”
Remembering that, Jack says he often wonders if he would have made it to the U.S. Olympic Team, knowing that Coach Hummer trained several Olympic athletes. He’ll never know now, but those Firemen’s Olympics medals feel pretty good around his neck.