Can you imagine being the first woman to participate in the Olympic Games for your country? Or the first woman to take home a medal? With Rio just around the corner, it’s a great time to get to know some of the Australian women who have been Olympic trailblazers. Here are ten pioneers you should definitely know for their impressive ‘firsts’.
1. Fanny Durack
In 1912 Australia sent its first two women to the Olympic Games – Fanny Durack and Mina Wylie. They actually competed as part of a joint Australian and New Zealand team, which had also combined forces for the 1908 Games. Durack swam the 100m freestyle and was the first Australian woman to win an Olympic medal. It also happened to be gold. Fellow Australian Wylie took out silver in the same race.
2. Lily Beaurepaire
In 1920 Australia sent just one woman, Lily Beaurepaire, to the Olympic Games in Antwerp. It was really two for the price of one because Beaurepaire competed in both swimming (in the 100m and 400m freestyle), and in the high dive. This made her the first Australian woman to compete in more than one sport at an Olympic Games. Though she didn’t have any women teammates that year, Lily’s brother Frank was there to cheer her on. He won a bronze and silver medal at the same Games.
3. Dawn Fraser
Dawn Fraser might be better known for her television commercials or ill-advised comments of late, but she should also be remembered for her remarkable swimming career. Fraser was the first woman to win gold in the same event (100m freestyle) at three consecutive Olympics – in 1956, 1960 and 1964. In 1964 in Tokyo Fraser apparently marched in the opening ceremony against instructions, and wore an unofficial swimsuit. She was subsequently banned for ten years by the Australian Swimming Union. Who knows what other firsts she might have achieved in that time if she had been allowed to compete.
4. Shane Gould
Our swimmers continue to dominate this list. Shane Gould was a young athlete of 15 at the 1972 Munich Games. She won five Olympic medals in the swimming – three of them gold. Gould took out bronze in the 100m freestyle, silver in the 800m freestyle, and gold in 200m and 400m freestyle and 200m individual medley. The spread of events shows her true talent. Gould was the first Australian to win five medals in a single Games. To this day, only Ian Thorpe has been able to repeat this feat.
5. Lisa Ondieki
It’s hard to believe now, as Australia prepares to send three women to Rio 2016 for the marathon, but the event excluded women until the late twentieth century.
In 1984 the women’s event was finally allowed at the Olympic Games, and Lisa Ondieki (then known as Lisa Martin) was the first Australian woman to take part in an Olympic marathon. She finished in seventh place that year but went on to race in four Olympic marathons. Ondieki won silver in the 1988 marathon in Seoul, just narrowly missing gold. This remains Australia’s only medal in the marathon (for men or women) at an Olympic Games.
6. Samantha Riley
Swimmer Samantha Riley won bronze in the 100m breaststroke in the 1992 Olympics. This made her the first indigenous Australian woman to win an Olympic medal. Riley went on to the 1996 Games where she took home a second bronze, again in the 100m breaststroke, along with a silver medal for the 4x100m medley relay.
7. Naomi Fischer-Rasmussen
At times, progress for women at the Olympics has been slow. Very slow. This is the case for boxing which only made its entry into the Olympic calendar in 2012, a whole century after our first women Olympians.
Naomi Fischer-Rasmussen was the first Australian woman to compete in boxing in the Olympics, as she took part in the inaugural 75kg event in 2012. Fischer-Rasmussen was unfortunately beaten in the first round, but fought well and has been integral to showing what’s possible for other women boxers in Australia.
8. Susie O’Neill
You may know Susie O’Neill by her moniker ‘Madame Butterfly’ for her prowess in the pool, and she certainly doesn’t seem out of place on this list of Australians. O’Neill finished her remarkable Olympic swimming career with eight medals.
But O’Neill is on this list for another reason – she was the first Australian woman to be elected to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) Athletes’ Commission. She held the post from 2000 until 2005 when she resigned.
9. Johanna Griggs
We know that women are significantly underrepresented in the commentary box around the globe. Women make up somewhere between 3 and 10 per cent of all sports journalists. This makes Johanna Griggs’s achievement, of being the first Australian woman to solely host Olympic coverage, all the more important. Griggs hosted the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City and, in doing so, proved that women could do exactly the same job as their male colleagues.
10. Kitty Chiller
An Olympic pentathlete who competed in the 2000 Games, Kitty Chiller is the 2016 Olympic Games Chef de Mission for Australia. This means she is responsible for the whole of the Australian Olympic team – from athletes to coaches. Chiller is the first Australian woman to be Chef de Mission and has said that it is “a greater honour than being selected as an athlete”.
So, there you have it. Ten Australian women who have been first at the Olympics. While we immediately think of our athletes when we think of the Games, it’s important to also recognise the achievements of women working hard for results off the field – those on the IOC, in the commentary box, or in the administration of the team. We are looking forward to Rio 2016 – who knows what other firsts might happen this year?