I have always been a fan of the Olympics and Commonwealth Games and particularly the sport of swimming. I guess that had a lot to do with the fact that during my impressionable years, Aussies were pretty damn good at it. I kept scrap books from the '76 Games onwards but the first ones I remember were the 1972 Munich Olympics. For the rest of the world these games will be remembered as a tragedy and rightly so. For me, all I can recall is a 15 year old Australian girl called Shane who took on the world and beat it.
This page pays tribute to the three greatest female swimmers Australia has ever produced and three of my heroes - Shane Gould, Susie O'Neil and 'Our Dawnie', the mighty Dawn Fraser. Of these only Susie is still in the sport and is gunning for her second Olympic gold in Sydney in September.
My first ever sporting hero (at least as far as I can remember) was Shane Gould. Shane excelled in the immediate pre-drugs era of women's swimming i.e. before the East German robot women of 1976. As a 15 year old in 1972 Shane held EVERY world record between 100 metres and 1500 metres freestyle. She eventually won 3 Gold, one silver and a bronze (all individual events) at the Munich Olympics and then abruptly retired a year or so later at age 16.
Australia was stunned by her retirement. Part of the reason must have been the inevitable result of living life in a pressure cooker. Its hard to believe that this kid withstood the pressures of the Olympics at all, let along excelled as she did. She did not have access to her personal coach or parents during the Games. She had to put up with the constant harassment and 'psyching out' attempts by jealous athletes of other countries. For example the Americans sported t-shirts with the legend 'All that Glitters is not Gould' and kept running into her in the practice pool in an attempt to put her off. Not only that but she carried the expectations of a whole sports-mad country on her broad but immature shoulders. In fact even after she performed so brilliantly there were those who called her a failure because she didn't win five golds!
I was devastated when she retired as she was my really big hero at age 9. I actually saw her swim at a meet in Adelaide in 1973 and went up to where she was sitting but was too scared to get her autograph. Later Mum took me up to where she was warming up for a race and asked for me but her coach said she was too busy getting psyched up. I regretted this missed opportunity for years however I was a little braver when I met her last year, 26 years on, at a book signing (left). I told her how scared I had been and she laughed and said "See - I don't bite!". It was a highlight of my life.
Shane's autobiography Tumble Turns, released late last year, is a great read. It details not only those hurly burly years of 'I was a teenage swimming champ' but also all of the tumble turns her life has taken subsequently. For example walking away from the limelight, living as a subsistence farmer, and her early pioneering forays into sports retirement planning.
Shane was awarded an MBE for her achievements and has also be granted the title of Olympic Legend by the IOC.
Susie O'Neill is already a legend even though just retired. Her breaking of the 19 year world record for the 200 butterfly officially earned the title of 'Madame Butterfly' although she was beaten in the event in Sydney. Susie really burst into world prominence in 1992 when she won a bronze medal in this her pet event, a feat she followed up in the 1994 world championships. On both occasions she was defeated by two huge Chinese girls with broad shoulders and beards!
After the mysterious demise of the Chinese swimmers in her event, Susie went undefeated in the 200 'fly, winning the gold medal at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. She finally cracked Mary T Meagher's world record in 2000, the oldest in the sport, after coming so close on so many occasions. But that's not all she swims, and in fact her efforts in a variety of events in 1999 saw her surpass the record for the most Australian titles (35) by any swimmer, male or female.
Susie triumphed again in Sydney but not in her pet event, instead winning the 200 freestyle. She took home a gold and three silvers - not a bad effort really! She has now retired from competitive swimming however this will not spell the end of Susie's involvement in the Olympics. At the Sydney Games she was elected to the board of the IOC - a truly great achievement. Susie has always displayed the utmost good sportsmanship and is a fantastic ambassador for the country.
Dawn Fraser is a sporting legend, a larrikin, and a fair dinkum Aussie sheila. She also just happens to be one of the greatest swimmers of all time, winning the 100m freestyle in three consecutive Olympics (1956 - 64) before being banned effectively for her sporting life for stealing an Olympic flag from the Imperial Palace in Tokyo. She is a real character and a fantastic sporting role model who continues to give back to the sport despite her frequent run-ins with officials in her competitive days. Dawn was in fact invited to appear in the opening ceremonies of the Atlanta Olympics as one of only a handful of living Olympic superstars. She is probably Australia's greatest ever Olympian, finishing with 4 gold and 4 silver medals, and helped carry the torch into the stadium at the 2000 Olympics.
For more on Aussie swimming visit the Australian Swimming website.
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