WWII veteran from Vancouver finds new life in the world of competitive swimming

Ahead of Veterans Day, FOX 12 introduces you to a World War II veteran from Vancouver who continues to make history.
Published: Nov. 10, 2022 at 7:59 AM PST
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VANCOUVER, Wash. (KPTV) - Ahead of Veterans Day, FOX 12 introduces you to a World War II veteran from Vancouver who continues to make history.

For Willard Lamb, a dip in the pool can feel like a sip from the Fountain of Youth.

“When I get in the water, it’s a whole new world,” Lamb said.

At age 99, Lamb may be the oldest competitive swimmer in the world. His aquatic career filled with stops and starts in the shadow of world history.

It all began as a teenager in Longview where in 1939, Lamb set a state high school record in the 220 meters race.

“I still have the record because we don’t swim a 220 anymore. After the war, I came home, we were now swimming a 200,” he said.

The war, of course, was World War II. Just before he was about to start swimming for the University of Washington, Lamb was drafted into the Army and joined the 511th Parachute Infantry Regiment.

“They asked for volunteers for paratroopers,” Lamb said. “I said for two cents I’d joined the paratroops, because I thought that would at least be something different, you know.”

He would spend the war in the Pacific Theater, parachuting into the Philippines and fighting to stay alive in remote jungles. Lamb won’t brag about their heroics, but historians have called his regiment one of the best combat outfits in the war.

When the fighting ended in 1945, he returned home to work in a local plywood mill until it shut down in 2003. Lamb was now in his 80s and he hadn’t swam competitively since 1941 when a friend told him about Masters Swimming circuit.

“March ‘06 was my first swim meet,” he said.

He’s been competing ever since. Just this past summer, Lamb was still jumping off the blocks at 99 years old.

And he’s not just swimming races, now he’s setting world records.

“I have the fortune of being in my own age group. When you’re in your own age group, you have no competition,” Lamb said. “I’m in the neighborhood of 120 world records.”

He swims a mile three times every week.

FOX 12′s Joe V. met up with Lamb at the Mirabella Senior Living Community in Portland where he was training with his friend Margaret Harding-Toppel, a fellow Masters swimmer who was a member of Puerto Rico’s Olympic swim team back in the 60′s.

“First swim meet was like, ‘Oh my goodness, this guy is amazing.’ He sets the standards for the rest of us,” Harding-Toppel said.

Lamb was inducted into the Masters Swimming Hall of Fame in 2019.

He will turn 100 this Christmas Eve, and if you think that’s going to slow him down, well then you haven’t met Lamb. In fact, he has another swim meet scheduled for this weekend.

“You really do feel fresh, you don’t believe you can swim as good as you do,” he said.

As he approaches a century of life marked by heroism and humility, Lamb keeps finding peace and purpose in the pool where records drop fast and time can stand still.

“Swimming I credit with still being alive,” he said. " I feel pretty lucky.”