The Australians who have been rampaging triumphantly in the front ranks of swimming for the past two years are about to cut loose again. From this weekend to the next, at Melbourne, before jammed galleries of 5,500 in the Olympic pool where Australia walloped the world 14 months ago, an even finer collection of Australian men and girls will be taking the starting blocks in their national championships. The field includes more than a dozen Olympic veterans and all of Australia's current world record holders, and the winners' rewards will include tentative selection on the squad that will defend Australia's supremacy at the Empire Games and elsewhere in the coming year. For this reason, just as the U.S. Olympic trials have become the world's toughest, closest fight in track, Australia's swimming championships have become the fiercest swimming scrap—a battle among the lions to decide which lions the rest of the world will be thrown to.
The lion leading the Australian pack into the fight this week is a muscular, square-faced, solemn and polite 15-year-old New South Welshman named John Konrads, and the leading lioness at the moment seems to be Konrads' 13-year-old kid sister, Ilsa. As readers of the small items on U.S. sport pages may have noticed, in the past five weeks Australians set 12 world swimming records, and the young Konradses set eight of these. Ilsa Konrads made new marks in the 800-meter and 880-yard freestyle; brother John broke every freestyle record from 200 meters to half mile. It is doubtful if the Konradses will do as much record breaking this coming week, but there is no doubt they will be swimming all out. Merely to win the three events he has entered—the 220, the 440 and the bastard "mile" distance of 1,650 yards—John Konrads will have to beat six Olympic finalists. Fred Hubbard, SPORTS ILLUSTRATED correspondent in Australia, points out that since John has touched out all these Olympians at some time, young Konrads' position in the coming fight is a reasonably comfortable one. His little sister Ilsa, however, will have a terrible time. Ilsa is well muscled, like her brother, graceful in the water, and shapely, although still showing the gangling traces of her 13 years. She enters the arena at Melbourne as a girl prodigy, but in the arena she will meet some girls who were prodigies themselves not too long ago and who are quite ready to beat a 13-year-old down to size. In the 110-yard sprint, Ilsa Konrads will go against Lorraine Crapp, Dawn Fraser and Sandra Morgan, who all won Olympic gold medals in the sprint relay. At 440 yards, Lorraine Crapp, Sandra Morgan, Ilsa Konrads and Dawn Fraser, in the order named, are the fastest girls the world has known. Whether 13-year-old Ilsa comes in first or fourth, the 440-yard swim will be a corker.
The extreme youth of the record-breaking Konradses is not, as any swimming coach in the world will attest, in itself remarkable. The sport has known many juvenile prodigies—Jimmy McLane and Sylvia Ruuska, to hurriedly pick two from the U.S. Olympic list. The Konradses are the first great Australian swimmers who were not native born. They were brought as toddlers by their parents from Latvia. The Konradses first entered the world of swimming five years ago, when their present coach, Don Talbot, at age 19, was earning a divided living as assistant to the famous coach Frank Guthrie, and as instructor at Revesby grammar school in the industrial suburban town of Bankstown outside Sydney. Ten-year-old John Konrads approached Talbot in the halls of Revesby grammar and asked for lessons. Talbot arranged for Konrads to join the Bankstown swimming club. When Konrads showed up at the pool, he had a leggy, 8-year-old girl in tow. "This is my sister, Ilsa," he explained. "She wants lessons, too." For the five years since they learned, the Konradses have been swimming hard.
Since some Americans, Japanese, Canadians, Germans, Russians, Britons, South Africans, French, Red Chinese, Italians, New Zealanders, Hungarians and Dutch have also been swimming hard for five years, this startling success of young Australians poses a question in very provoking terms. How can the young bloods of a country of 10 million rule a dozen countries totaling more than one billion? Any sport in any country is pyramidal in shape. The base of the pyramid is the mass popularity of the sport, and while some champions, true, reach remarkable heights with little support, the heights any country can hope to attain and hold in the long run depend greatly on the broad base of a popular interest. Australia for many years has been thinking boldly and wisely of swimming as a sport of all its people. The Australians have spent loving care on the base of the pyramid and only recently worked very hard at the summit. The U.S. swimming structure, in contrast, has been rotting at the bottom for years. Swimming in the U.S. today has more the eroded shape of a needle rock. There is heroic work going on at the top, and some good work in age-group swimming on the face of the rock, but at the bottom, among the average citizens, activity has all but ceased. The U.S. base actually is diminishing as we become the world's greatest race of spectators and do-nothings. In the U.S. the accent is on the negative. The average Australian child learns to swim; the average American, if he learns anything, learns how not to drown. Australians swim, Americans do not.
February 17, 1958
The city of Sydney, that now can proudly call the Konradses its own, fronts on headlands that are scalloped with some of the finest and most dangerous beaches in the world. As if the surf lines were not enough, on the face of the headlands swimming pools are perched like Italian villas. The frames of tidal pools, netted to exclude sharks, line the arms of Sydney's harbor, and inland, miles from beach or harbor, in areas like Bankstown, where the Konradses live, there are 55-yard public pools. There are, in all Sydney, 26 pools adequate for staging Olympic competition. A big U.S. city does well if it has more than one. Surfing and swimming are social sports down under, enjoyed in Sydney by members of two dozen surfing and four dozen swimming clubs (total membership: 12,000; age of members: 6 to 60). All Australia, a land with a population roughly equal to the greater New York area, supports more than 650 surfing and swimming clubs.
For a boy in suburban Bankstown, the material cost of becoming a world champion is very low. It costs 6¢ to get into the pool; a junior membership in the Bankstown swimming club is 55¢ a season. For Coach Don Talbot's most complete program, six months of twice-a-day training, the charge is $23.60—about 1/5 the price many Americans will pay for a second television set so they can get junior out of the living room. For the Australian child whose highest aim is to swim well enough to enjoy the booming surf and all the country's watery heritage, the cost is next to nothing. In the first chapter of the thick syllabus outlining its aims and program for primary schools, the New South Wales Education Department includes the objective of producing "the maximum number of all-round swimmers." Sixty thousand N.S.W. students last year learned to swim as part of the regular curriculum. This past month, as the Konradses rounded out their training for the nationals, busloads of children were emptied into the Bankstown pool. It was vacationtime down under, but the education department was teaching 25,000 more pupils in an extracurricular "learn to swim" program. The little Sydney boy who cannot wait for the school program to get around to him and who cannot afford even the modest fee the Konradses pay can come to the Bankstown pool anyway and learn some swimming from two amateur volunteer coaches. Parents and grandparents can learn at night from the same coaches.
It is summer now down under, and on a hot Sunday there are more than half a million Australians tumbling pell-mell, gliding, sliding, plunging, diving, gasping and swimming in the roiling lines of surf. Out by the headlands the great waves rise, 8, 10, 12 feet, and topple with a roar, spilling body surfers down their slick, rolling faces and pushing board riders shoreward like bareback riders. As they boom to shore, the thick, boiling wave fronts bury swimmers by the thousands. Australia's lifeguards—lifesavers, as they call them—barely turn a head to notice. The people can swim. If, perhaps, a few cannot, there are dozens around them in the water who bloody well can. Australia has a most intelligent lifesaving system, that depends upon men who are there not for pay but because they enjoy it. On a day of rough surf, for every lifesaver on an explicit tour of duty in his enclosure, there will be a dozen scrambling around in the surf among the rest of the water lovers. On weekends at the Sydney pools there are club meets, interclub meets and district meets. The first bark of a gun may send a pack of thrashing moppets off in a 55-yard race. The next racers on the mark may be one-legged war veterans or 50-year-old bank clerks. At Coogee Beach, even Australia's beloved beasts, Thoroughbred horses, are romped through the surf for strengthening.
Australians who have come here and sought action on a beach find the contrasting American scene is laughable. Americans have so much to do at the beach besides swim. When the American family hits the beach, daddy must set up the beach chairs and umbrella, shake the sand out of the portable radio, read the Sunday paper and snooze awhile. Junior must keep on the run to the concession stand for pop, hot dogs and more pop and hot dogs. Daughter Alice must play her portable Victrola and waken daddy to tell him that junior is trampling on her sand castles. Mother must lie there until she is sunburned which, in view of her impenetrable lather of sun lotion, will take almost forever. Americans embalm themselves slowly beside their favorite waters. The swimmer who tries to do otherwise on a convenient, popular beach has a hard time. A swimmer earnestly seeking conditioning by swimming away from the crowded mass of bathers in placid Long Island Sound may find the lifeguards forbid it because if he does it, then "everybody will do it." On the Jersey shore, which could offer the U.S. as much vitality as the Sydney beaches, the swimmer who tries to swim clear of the wallowing pack usually will be whistled back by the lifeguards, who become shrilling, edgy martinets if their bathing herd is half the size of an Australian crowd. Even in southern California, a relatively liberal area, the surf swimmer, the board rider and the body surfer are often considered to be some odd breed of jockey—not part of the typical throng. Of all the U.S., only the unofficial 49th state, Hawaii, which supplies far more than its share of Olympians, has the Australian attitude. Water recreation in the very crowded Honolulu area has been guided by people who know the value of water, notably among them Sheriff Duke Kahanamoku and Billy Smith, the old Ohio State swimmer, who now directs safety at Waikiki Beach. On the U.S. mainland the men in charge too often are municipal fuddy-duddies who have never understood its pleasure or value, or have forgotten both in the process of becoming important. The U.S. at its beaches, ponds, lakes and pools caters to the water dunker and the sun worshiper. It does next to nothing for the swimmer.
The swimming clubs, the school programs and the surfing of Australia, of course, do not make world champions. These factors develop raw material and, most important of all, imbue the people with a great spirit. From there, for the Konrads kids, climbing the pyramid has been a matter of self-denial and hard work. The swimming campaign which climaxes this week began for the Konradses last June, as Australia started into winter. From June through September the Konradses worked at Kiphuth body-building exercises (as a physical educator, Bob Kiphuth of Yale is better known in the primary school system of Australia than he is in the U.S. grammar schools). Two nights a week John Konrads spent an hour (and Ilsa did only slightly less) doing 500 knee squats, 350 body presses and 350 arm exercises and followed this up with an hour of pulling weights. The other five nights the Konradses took about one-third doses of squats, presses and arm work. Then, after two light weeks of swimming toward the end of September, the Konradses began rising at 5 a.m. to get in an hour and a half of swimming before school and three hours after school, going four or five miles in long, slow swims and using kicking boards. Toward the end of October, going about the same distance, four or five miles, the Konradses began hard interval swimming, Ilsa doing only about half what John did. On one day John might swim 10 440-yard distances at near pace with a five-minute break between each; the next day, perhaps five half miles with 10 minutes between; the next day, perhaps 16 220s with three minutes between. The kids filled out the day's work with a mile of kicking or pulling with their legs tied. After Christmas they began to taper off.
The crawl stroke of both Konradses is typically Australian—a re-emphasis of arm power over leg power, a bent-arm recovery, catching the water hard close to the head and pressing immediately. Both Konradses have the typically Australian body roll, pronounced but so clean that they seem to be impaled on a spit. All the leading Australian coaches agree that the form with which Australia now has crawled to supremacy is little more than the style developed in the U.S. a quarter century ago, then got lost over here in the mishmash of experiments involving superkicking, overlapping strokes, straight-arm recoveries and whatnot. "While the Japanese and Americans were overcoaching and trying out new techniques," Coach Frank Guthrie says, "we in Australia were working more in the gym and swimming more miles a day."
The Konradses hope that they will swim at the Empire Games and then meet the whole world when it gathers next at Rome in 1960. To do this, they will have to keep on beating Australians, which is as much of a job as anyone could ask for.