Dawn Fraser was just 12 years old and her historic Olympic achievements so far in the distance as to be unimaginable when she first displayed the precocious talents that would define her, both in the pool and out.
Accused of professionalism because she received two shillings (about 50 cents) for swimming well at a children’s Christmas party, she was suspended by the Amateur Swimming Union for two years.
Even though she admits that the idea of swimming for Australia had never even crossed her mind when she was told it wouldn’t and couldn’t happen, her inbuilt impulse to oppose tyranny, and show the bastards, kicked in. “I did not like being told what I couldn’t do,” as she succinctly puts it. A dozen years later, Fraser would successfully sue Bill Berge Phillips for defamation as her rift with officialdom grew ever wider and more bitter.
History records that Fraser was the first woman ever to swim under a minute for the 100m freestyle, and the first person to win the same event three successive Olympics. Her time of 59.9 secs for 100m at the 1962 Commonwealth Games trials was a fluorescent milestone in world sport.
Fraser won gold in the 100m freestyle in Melbourne in 1956, Rome in 1960 and Tokyo in 1964. The last win was perhaps the most remarkable, coming as it did in extraordinarily painful circumstances. Early that same year, Dawn was driving a car that collided with a parked vehicle, killing her mother, who was a passenger.
Dawn was required to wear a neck brace for weeks and was undecided about her future before deciding to swim in Tokyo in honour of her mum. “Afterwards at the medal ceremony I felt great pride, sadness for mum but pleasure that I’d won the medal she wanted me to win,” she said later.
There is a strong case to say she would have made it four consecutive gold medals in Mexico City in 1968, but officialdom finally got the upper hand. Fraser was suspended for 10 years by Berge Phillips’ Amateur Swimming Union for pranks and misdemeanours committed during celebrations in Tokyo after her gold-medal triumph.
Fraser sued the ASU for acting unlawfully by not giving her a chance to defend herself and for defamation over letters sent to overseas swimming Organisations criticising her. She won on both counts but the lifting of the ban came too late for her to qualify for the Mexico City Olympics, where she worked as a commentator instead. To win a bet that she could still break 62 seconds, Fraser got into the pool a few days before the Olympics and, with minimal preparation, clocked 60.2secs.
The gold medal in Mexico was won by American Jan Henne in 60secs flat. “At the very least I would have won silver, but many have said that, with all due respect to Jan, I would have won a fourth gold. And I’m afraid I have to agree. I know I could have won it,” she says. Dawn’s tally of four gold Olympic medals (three individual and a relay) were joined by six Commonwealth Games gold.
She broke 27 individual world records during a stunning career and won 29 Australian championships. It was a journey made all the more remarkable by her reluctance to take the first step. She was spotted at Balmain Baths by coach Harry Gallagher who then took two years to convince Dawn and her father that she had talent that should be developed.
A proud product of the Sydney inner-city suburb of Balmain, when it was strictly working class and not the upper-class boutique area it has become today, Fraser has written of the basic conditions of her childhood. “We had a proper bath once a week in a room at the back of the house. The copper was boiled and we’d take buckets from the copper to the tin tub,” she says. When her parents came to see her swim at the Melbourne Olympics in 1956, their rail fares were raised by chook raffles around Balmain and they stayed in a caravan.
Her upbringing also helped develop the forthright, aggressive approach that emphasised her competitiveness and refusal to back down – or be tactful. “If you want to succeed at the highest level you have to be competitive and I was very, very competitive. I had an incredible hunger to win,” she says in her autobiography. “And being banned from competition as a 12 year old only fed the hunger that I wanted to get even.”
Her flighty and sometimes willful way of doing things the way she wanted was accepted by Gallagher. When Dawn was winning her first Olympic gold medal in 1956, Gallagher wrote that he sat praying “Let the Wild One win.”
In 1999 Fraser was announced as the world female swimmer of the century at a lavish ceremony in Vienna at the World Sports Awards. A personal highlight for Fraser came in 1979, when she met Olympic gold medal winner and heavyweight champion Muhammad “I am the Greatest” Ali in Sydney. According to the book Australia at the Olympics, Ali said, “Dawn, you won three gold medals at three different Olympic Games. That makes you the Greatest.”
This is an extract from issue 1 of the Australian Sporting Heroes series. For more inspiring stories that shaped our nation, purchase the full collection at austsportingheroes.com.au
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