It has been nearly eight years since Australia's swimmers played host at the 1956 Olympic Games in Melbourne and celebrated the fact by giving their guests a sound thrashing. The Olympic pool in Melbourne where the thrashing was meted out does not today stand as an empty reminder of the past. In Australia, pools are for swimming, and the big pool in Melbourne is busier than ever. Knots of attentive mothers huddle in the first rows of the vast auditorium, watching as their children, ages 6 to 19, swim endless hours and countless miles up and down the pool in quest of the form and speed that will win state titles, national titles and, hopefully, eventual Olympic medals. Like ice-skating mothers and horse-show mothers, the swimming mother is a fanatic, an awesome combination of drill sergeant and drama critic.
At about 11:30 in the morning and again toward the end of the afternoon, six or seven days a week, the Olympic pool receives a different sort of visitor. She arrives alone, carrying a well-used traveling bag, and as she walks to the ladies' dressing room she nods and chats with the youngsters awaiting their turn on the starting blocks. She also looks up with complete scorn at the mothers sitting above her. In five minutes she reappears at poolside in a blue-and-white skintight bathing suit over which she has draped a bright-red towel. When she has found a vacant lane, she puts the towel aside and stands at the water's edge, all 149 pounds and 5 feet 8½ inches of her. Her name is Dawn Fraser, and she is the greatest woman swimmer in history.
Modern competitive swimming is a demanding, almost ascetic sport in which stars shine at 14 and fade at 18. Dawn Fraser is called Granny by Australian swimmers and officials, for back in the 1956 Olympics, when Australia showed the world how to swim, Dawn Fraser, at 19, was the oldest of the Australian world-beaters. Now, at 26, she is still unbeatable, a lone campaigner out to prove to the world—and to herself—that what a swimmer can do in her teens she can do even better later on.
At the moment nobody is even close to doing better than Dawn. In two Olympic Games and two British Empire Games she has collected an awesome total of nine gold and six silver medals. At present she is the holder of four world freestyle records, at 100 meters, 110 yards, 200 meters and 220 yards. She is the only woman ever to win the 100-meter sprint in two Olympics, and the first and only woman to break 60 seconds at that distance. No girl in the world has come within 1.8 seconds of her amazing world mark of 59.5.
February 17, 1964
Today Dawn Fraser is in the final stages of training for the Australian nationals, February 27 to March 1 in Sydney, and the next objective is, of course, the Tokyo Olympics this fall. Nobody in his right mind will be betting against Dawn Fraser in Tokyo, and Dawn herself is already thinking about the possibilities of trying for a medal at Mexico City in 1968, when she will be 30 years old. As she sits at poolside brushing back her soaking sandy hair, she sports an almost constant smile. "It wouldn't be impossible, you know, to win a swimming medal at 30," she says. "In the 1956 Olympics a German girl of 31 with three kids won the breaststroke. Thank goodness for me she was a breaststroker, not a freestyler."
Dawn is unmarried and has no particular serious boy friend. She trains because she wants to train, but this does not preclude having fun. She often goes out three or four nights a week, dancing the stomp and the twist, having a Martini before supper and as many as five or six beers at a party (sometimes she prefers a lime soda). In the morning, if she doesn't feel like it, she'll skip swimming. If she does feel like it, she'll hustle off to the Olympic pool, and there, because she can't get proper competition from any of the other girls in Melbourne, she'll spend an hour beating Australia's best junior boys in a series of 55-yard sprints. Dawn's greatness, while obviously the result of natural ability, is, according to her, just as much the result of her own refreshing philosophy on both training and competition. "I probably have a different mental approach to swimming than most people," she says. "I actually enjoy training most of the time. When I don't want to train, I don't. If it comes, it comes, and I don't force myself. Nine years ago, when I started swimming seriously, I did absolutely everything my coach, Harry Gallagher, told me to, but then two years ago I began using my own judgment more and more, and we both feel that this arrangement is better. In other words, our relationship is not that of coach and pupil but more like that of brother and sister."
Dawn Fraser has never suffered the lot of so many young swimmers today who are driven relentlessly by overeager parents. "Many of our girls, like many of yours in the States," Dawn concludes, "start competition at 9 and 10, and when they lose interest at 15 or 16 it's often because they are driven too hard. I've always believed that the desire must come from within, not as the result of being driven. I wouldn't want my parents coming to the pool to watch me and to be prodding me all the time. I should hate that."
At the age of 5 the young Dawn learned to swim in her native Sydney, where her father, Kenneth Fraser, had a poor-paying job as a shipwright. Mr. Fraser had come to Australia with a visiting Scottish soccer team and stayed on to get married and sire eight children. Dawn, the youngest of four daughters, was the last of the eight. "My father was interested in sports but didn't care much about swimming one way or the other, even up to the time he died two years ago," Dawn related recently. "My mother is just a good mother who said to me when I was 14, 'If you want to swim you go get yourself to the top.' "
The top seemed out of the question for Dawn. For many years she swam more for play and pleasure than for any serious purpose. Her parents were poor and often sick. Dawn spent most of her childhood staying home to help with the housework. Her brothers all played football, and it was they, rather than her parents, who urged her to take up swimming seriously. Dawn first came to the attention of Coach Gallagher in Sydney's Drummoyne Pool when she was 14. Three years later, in February of 1956, she had her first world record, when she beat a 20-year-old mark by swimming the 100 meters in 1:04.5. That started an almost endless procession of records in national championships as well as in the Melbourne and Rome Olympics and the Empire Games in Cardiff and Perth.
For all her poise, Dawn Fraser admits to being so nervous and tense at times that she can become as forgetful as a novice. "At a meet in Sydney a few years ago," she recalls, "I was peeling off my gym suit when an official put up his hand in front of me. 'Don't lift that jacket any higher,' he said, 'you've forgotten your bathing suit.' I looked down and sure enough he was right. I had no swim suit on. Another time I was thinking so much about a race that when I got on the starters' block I looked down to see that I still had my socks on."
Although she is basically a good-natured girl, Dawn has managed to get into occasional trouble with Australian swimming officials and the press. The most publicized event of her career came about during the 1960 Rome Olympics when she was banned from the team—reportedly for slapping a teammate. According to Dawn, the ban was the result of what she says is typical Australian inefficiency in team organization. "The morning after I won the 100 meters I went into Rome to do some shopping," she says. "I knew the 400-meter relay was on that day, but I had been told I wasn't to swim on our team. When I came back and was just sitting down to lunch in the Olympic Village they came to tell me the relay was in 45 minutes and I was to swim. Well, I wasn't prepared to swim and didn't. For that they banned me. I realize now I was probably wrong, but at the time I thought I was right and they were wrong in not being better organized. As far as the slapping story is concerned, it is a completely false report. I never slapped a teammate. This story is the result of an exaggeration of a rather minor incident in Rome. We were having a swimming team meeting and during it two of our younger girls were swearing in front of the coach. I picked up a pillow and tossed it at them for mucking things up. Out of that incident came the story that I had slapped one of them. It is untrue."
Today Dawn Fraser lives in her own small apartment in the Melbourne suburb of Clayton. Some time ago she quit her job as a trainee buyer for a department store because she wasn't promoted fast enough to suit her. She promptly went to work as public-relations director for Squashway Proprietory Limited, a general recreation center which has squash courts, trampolines, a gymnasium and a swimming pool. Dawn helps organize groups of youngsters from 8-16 for instruction in many sports, swimming included, but to protect her own amateur standing she does none of the teaching herself.
A rugged routine
Dawn spends nearly three hours a day in training, and it is not a patsy routine. It is, indeed, twice as much as either of the world-famous swimming Tarzans, Johnny Weissmuller and Buster Crabbe, did in their heyday.
The midday workout for Dawn and the members of Coach Gallagher's swim club begins with a slow, easy warmup. As they swim gracefully up and down the length of the pool, Gallagher paces along the sidelines, watching closely and pointing out minor defects in his swimmers' techniques. As Dawn was warming up one day recently, Gallagher waved a hand in her direction. "She has just about perfect style," he said. "Oh, occasionally I detect some difficulty with her shoulders and elbows in the water, but that's all."
On this day, after she had loosened up, Dawn began a series of 55-yard sprints at three-quarter speed. Swimming with her were several eager young boys who kept egging her on by passing her. Finally Dawn accepted the challenge and tore off one 55-yard dash in 28.7 seconds, leaving the young boys gasping in her wake. "She could have beaten any woman in the world just then," Gallagher said with pride, "and she was only using 90% effort."
Following the sprints, Dawn practiced racing turns and push-offs for the rest of the morning. That, as Dawn put it, concluded the "easy basic work." It is not until the afternoon session that she really gets down to business. First she zips through a series of 16 55-yard sprints at an average speed of 38 seconds each. Then she does 16 more, kicking only. She finishes up by swimming half a mile in leisurely fashion. When this is over, she returns home, perhaps to get ready for a date.
Though her training habits may seem happy-go-lucky, Dawn Fraser goes about the business of swimming with a fierce intensity, and chances are all the lime sodas in Australia will not keep her away from Tokyo and the Olympics this fall. She regards the 18-year-old American Robyn Johnson, and Sweden's Ann Hag-berg, 16, as her major competition but there is little doubt in her mind that she will win at least one gold medal. "The 100 meters is definitely my goal," she says. "I'll try out for the 400 meters too, and they may want to use me in the relay, but a victory in the 100 is what I really want. After that, who knows? I may retire if I get tired of it all, but then again, if I feel I can still improve, I might point toward the Empire Games of 1966 and even the 1968 Olympics."
Whatever Dawn Fraser decides, she has already outlasted a lot of other famous swimming names. Australian Lorraine Crapp, who, like Dawn, won two gold and one silver medal at the 1956 Games, left the swimming scene four years ago. Ilsa Konrads, another Australian, who set six world records at 15, has fallen behind the ever-quickening pace. America's Chris von Saltza, who came along four years after Dawn, is now a teaching pro at 18, another victim of a demanding sport in which the stale taste of chlorine and rigor of training too often wears out young girls and boys before they are 20.
But Dawn Fraser persists, the wise young grandmother of competitive swimming, happy in her play and, perhaps because of it, happy in her work.