Dawn Fraser: Champion Swimmer

The inaugural year of a Hall of Fame of any kind is unique in that inductees from the entire history of whatever activity a hall of fame commemorates receive consideration. In the example of the Sport Australia Hall of Fame (SAHOF), when it came along in 1985, men and women representing well over 100 years of sports in Australia were eligible. Many of them would go beyond SAHOF membership to the status of legends as the result of accomplishments that went well beyond the criteria that got them into the SAHOF in the first place.

Dawn FraserFrom the 1985 class, 26 individuals went on to achieve Legend status; the list includes names such as Sir Donald Bradman from cricket, Ted Whitten from Australian football, Rod Laver from tennis and Peter Thomson from golf.

From the sport of swimming, four athletes have achieved SAHOF legendary status as a result of their contributions to the history of the sport. Three of them have been women athletes, Susan O’Neill, Shane Gould and our current subject, Dawn Fraser.

The Great Depression

Dawn “Dawny” Lorraine Fraser was born on 4 September 1937 in Sydney’s Balmain suburb. The Great Depression was still wreaking its havoc on the economies of the world, and Fraser’s working-class family apparently went through periods of unemployment and deprivation and is often the case from that era, the lack of steady work was conducive to a steady birth rate and Fraser was the youngest of eight children.

Her father had been born and raised in Scotland, but escaped to Australia when he came with the Scottish national soccer team. Kenneth Fraser worked as a shipwright, and true to his Scottish nature, which some might claim was honestly borrowed from their Irish kin in the Isles, enjoyed spending a couple hours after work each day drinking with his friend at the pub, an activity that along with his reproductive prowess, only serves to make us think highly of him. Young Dawn would sometimes be his accomplice in smuggling rum to the Fraser domicile, an activity of which Kenneth’s wife, Rose, held a dim view. Dawn, only just seven, would also fetch the beer to dad and friends when they engaged in a friendly game of cards at the Fraser residence and by the age of nine, she was helping bookies to take bets, which serves to make us think highly of her.

At least some of Dawn Fraser’s swimming ability could be attributed to her mother’s daily swims in the Balmain Baths when she was pregnant with Dawn. Dawn herself was swimming in the pool as early as four years of age in the murky water of the pool fed by the waters of the Parramatta River. She was said to have on occasion dived down into the murk and exited through a hole to swim in the river itself. This anecdote, as we shall see further on, would play a part in our having some suspicion of the alibi she employed at a later point in her life that involved some water of questionable quality in Tokyo.

The story of Fraser’s early life is quite compelling, particularly the bit about her suffering from asthma, hardly something that you would think of value to an intensely aerobic activity, but she credits swimming with helping her control the malady and we need to leave the biographical behind in order to have a look at her swimming career because after all, this website is devoted to competitive sports.

The first thing that jumps out at one when looking at what Dawn Fraser accomplished in the sport of swimming is her longevity. In a sport notorious for churn, where athletes seldom last long due to the in intense training and discipline involved, along with the somewhat limited prospects from a financial perspective, Fraser is one of three people in the world to win gold medals thrice consecutively in three different Olympic Games. She did this by winning the 100 metres freestyle at the 1958 Games in Melbourne (an event where Australian women swept the medals), the 1960 Rome Olympics, and the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

The second thing that attracts the attention is that in a sport where world records are often broken within the span of a few heats, Fraser held the 100 metre freestyle record from 1 December 1956 until 8 January 1972, when countrywoman Shane Gould, almost 20 years junior to Fraser, shaved 4/10ths of a second off the mark Fraser had established in 1964, not long after she became the first woman to swim the 100m in under a minute in 1962.

1953 Olympics With 3 Medals

Fraser hauled in three medals in the 1956 Summer Olympics, in the 100 metres she took the gold in the individual and the relay and in the 400m freestyle, she took the silver. Her time in the 100-metre individual was a 1:02.0 world record and her team time of 4:17.1 in the relay was as well.

Another three medals came her way in the 1960 Rome Olympics. She set an Olympic record in the 100m, and then added silver medals in the 4 x 100m Freestyle Relay and the 4 x 100m Medley Relay.

In her last Olympics in 1964 in Tokyo, she again took gold and again established a new Olympic record in the 100m Freestyle. She also added a silver for her work in the 4 x 100m Freestyle Relay.

It was at this last Olympics that she encountered a bit of controversy, due in no small part to her well-known larrikin tendencies, although it is doubtful that any of her father’s rum was involved, since, as he was a true Scot, that rum would have been a distant memory.

The story goes that she had swum a moat and stolen an Olympic flag flying outside the Emperor’s palace. Years later, she would proclaim innocence, quoted in an issue of the 1991 Times as saying, “There’s no way I would have swum that moat. I was terrified of dirty water and that moat was filthy. There’s no way I’d have dipped my toe in it.”

Given her history of having spent many hours swimming the muddy Parramatta, we must be forgiven if we sound a little dubious, but we have to supply the benefit of the doubt at least, and acknowledge that an aversion to dirty water can be developed later in life. The decidedly non-larrikin Australian Swimming Union suspended her for 10 years for the alleged incident. The suspension was lifted just prior to the 1968 Olympics, but the now 31-year-old Fraser did not have time to prepare and so did not compete.

Along with her eight Olympic medals, Fraser won gold six times in the Commonwealth Games. At one time or another, she held 39 records.

Many honours and a brief career in film and politics followed Fraser’s swimming days. She represented her fellow larrikins from Balmain in the Parliament of New South Wales for three years until the Balmain district was abolished in 1991.

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