Good as gold – Mae Leonard on Australian swimming legend Dawn Fraser
An Irishwoman’s Diary
Dawn Fraser of Australia: her epic swimming career was cut short by a prank at the Tokyo Olympics in 1964
A dog shattered my Olympic dream. A couple of weeks before the national swimming championships as I cycled home from school, he knocked me off my bike.
At Barrington’s Hospital in Limerick the doctor squinted at the X-ray of my elbow, made doubtful noises and, taking no chances, plastered it.
The 1956 Olympics would have to go ahead without the pleasure of my company. My mother smiled grimly, saying, “Forget swimming now and concentrate on your studies for your Inter Cert.”
My father was more sympathetic and he bought a newspaper every day so that I could follow the international swimming scene.
Alas. there were very few reports of swimming events until Dad tuned my mother’s new Pye radio to the BBC World Service. Through the sizzling static the name that kept cropping up was Dawn Fraser of Australia. She would have been my biggest rival – if I hadn’t injured my elbow and, of course, if I had, by some miracle, made the times for a place on the Irish Olympic team.
When she was just 13 years old, she was suspended from amateur swimming for 18 months because she had accepted a couple of small cash prizes at local galas
The more I heard about Dawn Fraser the more I liked her. She became my hero. She wasn’t just the “World’s Fastest Lady Swimmer”; she was a rebel too. Newspapers began to tell stories about her “adolescent” antics.
So, who was this young madam and what was she up to?
Well, she was the youngest in the Fraser family of eight children living in Balmain by Sydney docks.
She suffered badly with asthma as a child and when she was only five years old her older brother took her swimming hoping that it would improve her breathing.
It certainly did because by the time she was 11 she was competing and winning every race she swam. Her career was launched and she joined the local swimming club. When she was just 13 years old, she was suspended from amateur swimming for 18 months because she had accepted a couple of small cash prizes at local galas.
Dawn was down but not out. She continued to train until the ban was lifted and Harry Gallagher, one of Australia’s top swimming coaches, spotted her.
Under his tutelage she was selected for the Australian swim team for the 1956 Melbourne Olympics.
Our ears to the radio, my Dad cheered on Ron Delaney to win gold for Ireland in the 1,500m but all I wanted to know was if Dawn Frazer won the 100m freestyle, and I danced around the kitchen when the commentator told us she had – in 1.02minutes.
She was on the Australian Olympic Team in Rome in 1960 and won the 100m freestyle again, beating her own record time. In fact, she was the first lady to break the one-minute barrier at that distance.
Things turned nasty when she refused to swim the butterfly leg of the medley relay because she had just eaten her lunch and in the ensuing fracas smacked one of her teammates in the face with a pillow. Is this what the papers meant when they reported her “antics”?
In February 1964, she swam her fastest time ever, a 58.9 second world record but as she prepared for the Tokyo Olympics tragedy struck. Driving home from a social event her car skidded into a parked truck. Her mother was killed and Dawn herself sustained injuries that kept her in a neck brace for six weeks. But come July she was back and took the Olympic gold for the third time.
Now 27 years old you could hardly call it adolescent antics when she allegedly swam the moat of the Emperor’s Palace in Tokyo and stole the flag flying there. She was arrested but released without charge. The Australian Swimming Union suspended her for 10 years.
She was barred from defending her title at the Olympics in Mexico in 1968.
I lost track of her when she dropped out of the swimming scene and married – a marriage that didn’t last very long but just long enough to give birth to her daughter.
Later on, I heard that she was running a pub in Sydney and was elected to the New South Wales Parliament in 1988.
Someone told me also that she was an official at the Olympics in Atlanta but suffered a heart attack and had to be hospitalised there but she survived to carry the Olympic torch into the arena in Sydney in 2000.
Dawn Fraser is now 84 years old and a member of the International Swimming Hall of Fame, a Companion of the Order of Australia and an MBE. There was even a film, called Dawn!, made of her amazing swimming life.