Australia’s female swimmers are very likely to be the darlings of the nation over the coming week, should pre-Olympic Games predictions prove correct. There will be media clamouring for interviews, politicians seeking a dose of reflected glory and assorted breakfast cereal endorsements.
It was all very different for Australia’s two female Olympic swimming pioneers just over 100 years ago. Yes, there was glory as Fanny Durack and Mina Wylie finished with gold and silver respectively in the 100 metre freestyle, as female swimmers participating in the 1912 Olympic Games for the first time. But in contrast to the modern day heroines, Durack and Wylie – despite both boasting remarkable track-records - had to fight blinkered officialdom and old-fashioned social mores to be permitted a spot on the team travelling to the Amsterdam Olympics.
Thankfully, they won their battle and were rewarded on the Olympic dais. Their respective stories remain fascinating, perhaps more so than ever in light of very recent advances made in women’s sport. Just ten years after women were allowed to vote in Federal elections, the pair were mirroring the suffragette movement in the sporting field.
The first women’s events at the Olympic Games were held in 1900, with swimming introduced in 1912. It was the first endurance related sport to be held for women, following on from more low-key pursuits such as golf and archery.
Australian female athletes weren’t sent to an Olympiad until Durack and Wylie’s pioneering achievements, where they were the only two women in a team of 26.
In contrast, Australia’s team in Rio features, for the first time, more female than male athletes.
Durack and Wylie, who both learnt their aquatic skills on the coastline of Sydney’s eastern suburbs, were friendly rivals from a young age pushing each other to greater heights. In 1912, Durack, for the first time, set world records in the NSW Championships in both the 100 and 220 yard freestyle events, with Wylie close behind in both. It was to become a recurring theme.
Competitive freestyle had not been available to women just a few years earlier. Seemingly it wasn’t considered decorous enough. And while that wall tumbled, further barriers remained in place.
The two swimmers’ achievements led to public demands that they be included in the Olympic Games team later that year in Stockholm. Significant debate ensued with public opinion divided.
However, bathing was fast becoming a popular pastime, and was perhaps heightened by former NSW and Australian swimming champion Annette Kellermann, who had carved out a career in Hollywood’s fledgling film industry typically cast in aquatic themed pictures. Kellermann’s fame, incidentally, was revived in the 1950s when a star-laden biopic – Million Dollar Mermaid – was released.
An ongoing societal debate about what constituted appropriate waterside attire also raged at the time, and this backdrop added further to multi-layered discussion around support for the swim pair. The groundswell of support prevailed, though the Amateur Swimming Union were highly reluctant and insisted that the women could only join the team if someone else paid their fares. They also had to be chaperoned throughout the trip.
Durack was reputedly as fierce as competitor outside the pool as she was in it, and she strongly championed the cause. Public financial support helped the duo to join the ship sailing for Europe, after the election committee had suggested lack of funds was the reason for the pair’s omission, even though they would both be among the first picked in the modern era.
On the other side of the world, the founder of the modern Olympics – Frenchman Baron Pierre de Coubertin – lost his ongoing fight to keep female swimmers excluded. Two women’s swimming races were eventually approved - 100 metres and 4x100 metres - as well as a diving event.
Durack lowered the world record time in her heat, and finished the 100 metre final in 1.22, three seconds clear of Wylie. A century on the world record mark is Cate Campbell’s 52.06 set in Brisbane just a month ago.
But the race length is one of the few similarities between the Olympic experiences for the current Aussie swim queen and the favourite of yore.
The 1912 swimming pool was constructed within Stockholm harbour. Pontoons and a boardwalk on the open side of the venue separated competitors from the open water. The water itself was murky, with the official 1912 Olympic Games report describing it as “good enough”.
The fact that - Dawn Fraser’s hat-trick of successes aside - Australia didn’t win the event again until Jodie Henry in 2004, gives further context to Durack’s achievement.
Durack’s victory was Australia’s only individual gold at those Olympics. The pair returned home to significant acclaim, and Australia’s Olympic love affair gained a new dimension.
Durack set numerous world records over the decade, though World War I prevented both her and Wylie from the opportunity of a return to the Olympic stage.
Though a street in Sydney Olympic Park, located parallel to the Olympic pool, is named Sarah Durack Avenue in her honour, the swimming great was universally referred to as Fanny. While inducted into the international Hall of Fame during the 1960s, it was only in 1999 that she had a pool named in her honour at Petersham in Sydney’s inner-west.
Wylie, for her part, went on to claim world records in freestyle, backstroke and breaststroke, and incredibly, she won at least one event at the Australian national championship every year for two decades. She didn’t step back from competitive swimming until in her 40s.
Mina’s (Wilhelmina) legacy lives in the shape of Wylie’s Baths, a Coogee ocean pool – said to be the oldest public sea baths in Australia – established by her father in 1907 where the future Olympian learned her trade.