Looking Back: Athletic History

90 years of athletic excellence.

From the very beginning, the Washington Athletic Club has celebrated its middle name. Founded for social and athletic purposes and driven by those same goals today, the Club’s spirit has hovered over the corner of Sixth and Union—and around the world—since 1930. Members come here for many reasons. Sports, friendship, business … the list goes on and on. As the Club commemorates its 85th year, WAC Magazine will uncover stories lost, championships gained, and lives lived in shared pursuit of something

For each of us, life is a series of moments. Our history as a club is no different. Join us as we honor the past and look forward to the future. We begin with our middle name, as prominent today as on opening day 85 years ago: Athletics

It was a seemingly normal Seattle winter day in December 1930 when the WAC pushed open its doors for the first time. The temperature stood in the mid-40s, soft rain fell for a while, and around the growing city men in hats and women in long pleated skirts dodged construction sites and an ever-growing number of automobiles.

The WAC’s current cornerstone was not yet in place, but it would lay out the Club’s guiding principle:
This building is dedicated to the advancement of the amateur athletic and social activities of Seattle and the Pacific Northwest. As the first members entered their newly minted Clubhouse, then Seattle’s third-tallest building, they shook off the cold and smiled at the grandeur before them. They were part of something with-out equal.

Soon, a local newspaper was calling the city’s newest architectural gem “the skyscraper of sports.”

The Club has always been about more than athletics, of course, but 85 years later that middle initial still stands strong.

“The WAC has recognized the importance of athletics to our members and our community since its inception,” President & CEO Chuck Nelson says. “From supporting full teams and individual athletes in their Olympic and national team quests, through helping all members with their fitness and well-being, the WAC is dedicated to excellence and achievement at
every level.”

As our 85th year progresses, Club members can watch our past unfold in new displays soon appearing around the Clubhouse. When you do, you’ll witness bygone eras come to thriving life, and you’ll see some of the biggest sporting moments in WAC history.

Only weeks after steam shovels began excavating the Clubhouse building site, early members threw their support behind Seattle athletes preparing for the pending Los Angeles Olympics. Those 1932 Games would go on to feature WAC swimmer Helene Madison, who won three gold medals and held every single women’s freestyle world record simultaneously—a feat unmatched before or since.

“Her performance in 1932 places her permanently in WAC lore,” says Wayne Milner, WAC Senior Vice President Athletics, Special Projects & Community Partners. “You hear about her as often as you do because she still stands as the Club’s preeminent athlete.”

International achievement

Club members and Club-sponsored athletes have continued to compete at national and international levels in the eight decades since Helene captured the world’s attention. It started just four years later when swimmers Jack Medica, Olive McKean, and Mary Lou Petty competed at the Berlin Games. Jack brought home a gold and two silvers, and Olive claimed a bronze. It was the same year Jesse Owens won four gold in the face of Adolf Hitler.

Also in 1936, WAC board members Torchy Torrance and Royal Brougham, the legendary Seattle sports writer and editor, helped raise funds for the University of Washington eight-oar crew team that also won Olympic gold, a story given new life by the recent literary success The Boys in the Boat.

Twenty years after that feat, the WAC sent four rowers to the 1956 U.S. Olympic trials in New York, and WAC swimmer Nancy Ramey took silver at the Melbourne Games. Other WAC-supported Olympians include the brother-sister figure skating pair Karol and Peter Kennedy, who won the U.S. championship from 1948–1952 and took silver at the 1952 Olympics; and cross-country runner Doris Brown, who won five consecutive international titles from 1967–1971 and represented the U.S. in the 1968 and 1972 Games.

“The Olympics remain the pinnacle of international sports,” Wayne says. “We continue to seek Olympic hopefuls, to help them train, and hopefully to watch them reach the Games and the Olympic podium.”

By 1955, the Club had helped support competitive athletes in crew, golf, squash, swimming, handball, skiing, ice-skating, wrestling, and boxing. Today, WAC athletes eyeing the 2016 Olympics include rugby players and rowers.

A spring to start

The WAC didn’t waste any time starting its sporting history. Even before Clubhouse construction ended, members sent a track team coached by early board member Hec Edmundson to the national Amateur Athletic Union meet in Pittsburgh. The team and its medals arrived home in time for the Club’s grand opening.

Handball was the original Club sport and a key reason for the WAC’s founding. In just its second month of existence, the Club hosted the All-City Handball Tournament.

A general sporting rivalry with the Multnomah Athletic Club proved important to both clubs’ pride in the early years, with an intricate totem pole and bragging rights the award for winning the annual multi-discipline interclub championship.

The original WAC basketball club, meanwhile, was formed in 1933. It turned out to be a great place for young leaders on and off the court. The basketball club’s 1937–1938 president, Albert D. Rosellini, was later elected Washington state governor.

Then and now

Much of the WAC’s early sporting success came thanks to its first swim coach, Ray Daughters. From 1930 to his retirement in 1964, Ray coached Club swimmers to 30 world records, 301 American records, and 64 national championships. When the Olympics returned to Los Angeles in 1984, WAC synchronized swimmer Candy Costie won gold with her teammate, Tracy Ruiz. Candy’s victory was a fitting tribute to Helene’s achievements more than half a century earlier. In 2002, the WAC officially named the 6th Floor pool in honor of Helene Madison.

For every star WAC athlete, however, there are hundreds of members whose true competition is themselves, their friends, or the clock. The vast majority of WAC members, in fact, represent Club founders’ early beliefs that a balanced lifestyle—including work, family, fitness, and social and cultural endeavors—was essential                 to happiness.

“The Club embraces its leadership role in encouraging and promoting the benefits of athletics as essential to a healthy community and individual lifestyle,” Chuck says. “Our commitment to fitness and wellness has been around for 85 years and it’s not going anywhere.”

From the corner of Sixth and Union to the highest levels of international competition, the WAC’s dedication to sports,
fitness, and athletic achievement stands tall.

—As published in the February/March issue of WAC Magazine. Posted December 15, 2017

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