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Posted on 16 November, 2018 in Stories

Famous Australian Swimmers: A History of Swimming in Australia

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Down Under, we are lucky to have a long list of Famous Australian Swimmers. Our national obsession with the water means Australia punches well above its weight in the swimming stakes. For such a small nation, we far outperform other countries in the pool. But above all, we just love the water. From the earliest Nippers lessons to those winter polar bear swims, you’ll always find an Aussie bobbing about in the ocean or local swimming hole (be it man-made or otherwise).

Take a look at some fascinating facts about Australia’s swimming history and our proudest aquatic achievements.

The history of swimming in Australia

According to the University of Tasmania, the Aboriginals who dwelled in Australia were able to swim, with “swimming and diving games performed to show courage and strength.” Research from documentary-maker John Ogden points to the coast and its waters being a huge part of life for Australia’s indigenous population. It could be easily be argued that Aboriginals were the first famous Australian swimmers. “These were very good water people, with excellent surf skills,” Ogden writes. “It was their livelihood. Theirs was a canoe culture and they were known to take these craft out in large surf. They fished with spears or lines and hooks and would dive off rock ledges into the surf.” Ogden also believes the Aboriginal population were keen body surfers who were able to plunge to considerable depths in search of abalone and crayfish.

Enter the Europeans

When the Europeans first arrived in 1788, they were hardly stripping down to their smalls and diving in off the helm of the Endeavour. In fact, few of the ship’s crew would have even had the skills to survive a dip in the ocean.

The threat of sharks meant the convicts that followed didn’t look to the sea as a way to escape their new home. Even those housed on Sydney’s Cockatoo Island decided against a dip, although there was the odd exception who braved the waters of the harbour in exchange for their freedom.

Because swimming was not popular and sandy beaches impractical for living on or raising crops, most of the seaside locations in Sydney which are so popular now kept their Aboriginal names. This is why you can dine in Paddington or Rose Bay but swim at Bondi, Curl Curl and Coogee. And while there was little interest in swimming for the first settlers, it wasn’t long before the evolution towards the water-loving nation we are today began.

Swimming takes hold

As Sydney Harbour became more polluted, the growing population started looking to the seaside as a place for recreation. At this time, a trip to the beach was more about picnicking and strolling than swimming. Not a very promising start to our list of famous Australian swimmers!

During the 1800s, swimming baths began to pop up, the first of which were believed to be opened at Woolloomooloo in 1833. These baths provided protection from the open ocean and required little upkeep, however, men and women were not allowed to swim together. There’s another interesting fact about Sydney’s Ocean Baths. At the time they were built, it was deemed illegal to swim during daylight hours in the ocean or harbour. While this would have been presented as a way to protect public decency and also reduce drownings, you can’t help but wonder who profited most from the decision!

Down in Melbourne, ocean baths were also popular. Several opened their doors to the public in St Kilda during the 1800s. These offered separate hours for men and women. It gave swimmers a place to cool off away from the view of the general public.

Corporation Baths along the western side of Woolloomooloo Bay in the 1880s. (City of Sydney Archives CRS 51/4581)

Club swimming

According to dictionaryofsydney.org, in the 1890s: “Club swimming carnivals at the Bondi and Bronte pools included men’s swimming, diving events, water polo matches, as well as popular novelty events. Women’s swimming events remained novel in colonial New South Wales, even after the New South Wales government schools and private schools began offering learn-to-swim programs for boys and girls.”

The ban on ocean swimming before dark was lifted in 1902. At around the same time, Australia began to compete on the world stage. Outside of the pool, our rough waters incited a global first. The Bondi Surf Bathers Lifesaving Club is credited as the oldest surf lifesaving club in the world.

Many sources also claim the stroke ‘freestyle’ originated in Australia. Apparently, Australian Richmond ‘Dick’ Cavill, was inspired by Solomon Islander Alick Wickham in the early 1900s. After watching Wickham a modified stroke was developed, which ultimately became known as the ‘Australian Crawl’.

As time progressed and bathing suits became less restrictive, inland public swimming pools became more popular. Now, you’d be hard pressed to find a town in Australia without one, such is our passion for the water. There is nothing like cooling off with friends and family at the local public pool. There’s often food available and no need to keep it clean yourself!

Our Olympic record

Our nation has always proven its prowess in the pool on the world stage and there are many famous Australian swimmers.

Swimming Australia tells us Australia was first represented at the Paris Olympics in 1900 by Frederic Lane. He won two individual gold medals. Women’s events were added during the 1912 Olympic Games. At this time, Fanny Durack and Wilhelmina ‘Mina’ Wylie won gold and silver in the 100m freestyle.

Wikipedia notes Australia has won a total of 58 gold medals in swimming, second only to the United States with 217. To put this in perspective, the US has 15 times the population of Australia but only around four times the swimming medals.

Amazingly, swimming makes up almost half of all Australia’s gold medal wins throughout history.

Around 40 athletes are selected to swim for Australia at the Olympics, chosen from thousands of hopefuls around the country. To add to this, we compete as a nation at the Commonwealth Games and FINA World Aquatic Championships.

Proudest moments

We all remember ‘that day’ in Australian swimming. Some of our proudest memories from the pool still bring goosebumps.

Who can forget Kieran Perkins winning the 1500 metre freestyle in Atlanta several metres ahead of fellow Aussie Daniel Kowalski, despite only qualifying to race by a margin of 0.24 seconds?

Back in 1988, Duncan Armstrong secured several years’ worth of sponsorship deals after his epic swim. He came from behind to ‘snatch’ the 200m freestyle medal out of the clutches of his rivals at the Seoul Olympic Games.  Watch the video, it is gold-medal worthy for so many reasons.

And then there’s the Australian men’s’ 4×100 relay team, who so famously ‘played their rivals like guitars’ in Sydney in the year 2000, ending the USA’s previously unbroken winning streak.

Before claiming her gold in Tokyo, swimming legend Dawn Fraser spent eight months recovering from a car accident which sadly killed her mother. The win made her the first Olympic athlete to win Olympic gold medals in the same event at three successive Olympic games (1956, 1960 and 1964).

Beyond the Olympics

Susie Maroney is another legend on our list of famous Australian swimmers. A long-distance swimmer, in 1990 Susie became the first person to swim from Manly, New South Wales to Darling Harbour and back again in seven hours. That same year she also broke the speed record for swimming the English Channel. In 1997, Susie famously emerged from the water on the shores of Florida, has become the first person to swim the 180 km distance from Cuba to the United States.

Susie also took the record for covering the longest distance at the time without flippers in open sea. Her journey from Mexico to Cuba took 38 hours and 33 minutes and covered 197 km.

Most famous Australian swimmers

From Shane Gould to Susie O’Neill, the list of famous Australian swimmers is a long one.

Our top swimmer of all time is Ian Thorpe, who won three gold and two silver at the 2000 Summer Olympics. After this, he racked up further wins in Athens in 2004 to bring his collection to nine.

Up there with Ian is Shane Gould, who claimed three gold, one silver and one bronze when she was just 15 years old. In doing so, she became the first woman to win three individual gold medals at one Olympics. Shane is the only Australian to win five individual medals and three individual gold medals at one Olympics.

Along with Ian Thorpe, Shane is one of the most decorated athletes in Australian Olympic sport. Close behind is Susie O’Neill, who collected a swag of eight Olympic medals in total. Over her career, ‘Madam Butterfly’ broke the 200m butterfly Commonwealth Record six times. Between 1990 and 2000, she never returned from an international competition without a medal.

Dawn Fraser won her gold medals in the 100m freestyle. Dawn’s swimming career was unfortunately cut short, after being accused of stealing a flag from outside a palace in Japan. Despite not being charged with any crime, the Australian Swimming Union issued the famous Australian swimmer with a 10-year suspension.

Murray Rose and Ian Thorpe have both won the 400m freestyle twice, while Kieren Perkins and Grant Hackett won the 1500m freestyle twice at the Olympics.

Current record holders

At present, there are seven swimming world record holders from Australia. These include the women’s 4x100m freestyle relay team (Shayna Jack, Bronte Campbell, Emma McKeon and Cate Campbell).

Grant Hackett’s 800m freestyle world record still stands from 2008. Mitch Larkin holds the 200m backstroke record, which he broke at the Australian Championships in 2015. Cate Campbell set the 100m freestyle record in 2017.

Eamon Sullivan is the Olympic record holder for the 100m freestyle. He is joined by Emily Seebohm as a current Olympic record holder (100m backstroke), and the Australian women’s 4x100m freestyle relay team (Emma McKeon, Brittany Elmslie, Bronte Campbell and Cate Campbell).

Why learning to swim well is so important in Australia

You don’t have to be a famous Australian swimmer to enjoy the water. Swimming is ingrained as part of our national culture. As a result, there’s an assumption that we can all swim like Olympic athletes, almost from birth. However, as well as being one of our most popular past-times, swimming is also one of our most dangerous.

In 2018, the Royal Lifesaving National Drowning Report shared that 249 people had drowned in Australia in 2017. 72% of these people were male. The locations where people are most likely to drown are the beach, rivers (or creeks) and our harbours. Sadly, it has been found that migrants and tourists make up a third of those who perish from drowning.

The latest figures display a 14 per cent reduction on 2016/17 and an 11 per cent reduction on the ten-year average. This is encouraging but the number of Australians who drown in our waterways is a reminder that vigilance is always important. Drowning can happen for a number of reasons. Very rough surf and rip tides can have swimmers very quickly out of their depth. There is also a risk of diving into murky waters without first checking what is below the surface.

Swimming safely

The safest way to swim is either between the flags at the beach (where lifeguards are on patrol), supervised at your home swimming pool or at a supervised public pool. Children should always be watched by an adult. Even 20 seconds under the water can have disastrous consequences in small children.

While it is important to provide children with water safety awareness from as early as possible, instructors remind us that it is not until they are five or six that they should be considered competent enough to swim out of arms’ reach of an adult.

Lessons are essential for children of all ages. The first step is to teach them how to safely get themselves to the edge if they fall into a pool. The next is to give them the confidence to enjoy water play. As they grow older, advanced swimming skills will allow them to swim competitively, stay in control in the ocean, and also help a friend or stranger who is in trouble.

Mingara’s swimming facilities

Ready for a dip? People of all shapes, sizes and abilities take the plunge at Mingara, every day of the week.

Mingara has one of the best swimming facilities on the Central Coast, starting with our Olympic-sized swimming pool. In fact, we have pools galore! A separate leisure pool and nearby babies and toddlers water play area provide space for families to enjoy a fun swim on hot summer days without feeling as though they are bothering people who want to swim laps.

Come to Mingara and you’ll also find a hydrotherapy pool and two spa pools. To help you make the most of the facilities, we offer learn-to-swim, swim squads and aqua fitness classes for all ages. You can also book the aquatic centre for school carnivals, social or corporate events. Grab new bathers, floaties or extra goggles at our swim shop, and bring the kids during the summer holidays, when we set up inflatable pool equipment.

After all that swimming, you’ll no doubt be ravenous. That’s the time to hit the Wellness Cafe and refuel, with a range of tasty delights that are also good for you. Come in and see us soon!

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