On 21 February 1956, 18-year-old Dawn Fraser broke Willy den Ouden's 20-year-old world record for the 100m freestyle.
The Australian breaker
On 1 December of the same year, Fraser led an Australian medal sweep of the event at the Olympic Games in Melbourne, setting another world record in the process. She gained a second gold medal in leading the Australian team to a world record in the 4x100m freestyle relay and earned a silver medal in the 400m freestyle.
100m in under a minute
Four years later, at the Olympic Games in Rome in 1960, Fraser repeated her victory at 100m to become the first woman to defend an Olympic swimming title. She also placed fifth in the 400m and picked up silver medals in the medley relay (the first time it was included in the Olympic programme) and in the freestyle relay. On 27 October 1962, Fraser, swimming in Melbourne, became the first woman to break the one-minute barrier for 100m when she covered the longer distance of 110 yards in 59.9 seconds.
Medals, and a stolen flag
At the 1964 Olympic Games in Tokyo, Fraser fought off a stiff challenge from Sharon Stouder of the United States to win the 100m again, becoming the first Olympic swimmer of either sex to win the same event three times. She also gained a silver medal in the freestyle relay and placed fourth in the 400m. While in Tokyo, Fraser was arrested for stealing a flag from the entrance to the Emperor's Palace, but after she apologized, the charges were dropped and the emperor gave her the flag as a gift. In 1988, Fraser was elected to the parliament of New South Wales and served until 1991.
Here, Dawn Fraser recalls an Olympic career that began on home soil in Melbourne in 1956:
“The Games in Melbourne were one of the most enjoyable experiences of my life; I can still remember walking into the Melbourne Cricket Ground with the Australian team for the Opening Ceremony and listening to the roar from the crowd. Melbourne was also the first time I’d ever swum in a heated pool, which was absolutely fantastic!
The 100m final was very competitive. I wasn’t overly confident, as there were some very good swimmers, such as Lorraine Crapp, and there were some very fast times in the semi-finals. I was hoping that I could do what my coach had asked me to do. Everything went to plan apart from my turn – I did a throwback turn instead of a tumble turn as I was a little bit inexperienced and a little bit scared.
It was not only phenomenal for me to win that first gold medal for myself, and my country, but also because my parents, my sister and brother-in-law were in the crowd. It was really the first time my mum and dad had seen me swim and I was very proud. Winning silver in the 400m and another gold in the relay was more than I ever expected.
Four years later, in Rome, it was a very different experience. I was under quite a lot of pressure because I was the reigning Olympic champion, but I had planned my race and felt ready. It was almost a relief to win! I knew what I had to do, but I had to be aware of what my competitors were doing. In those days we didn’t have goggles and you had to look for their shadows at the bottom of the pool, but I used to lift my head up so I could see where they were.
After I was chosen for the Olympic team for Tokyo, I was driving home and we had a very bad car accident. My mother was killed and that had a huge impact on my life; I didn’t want to swim any more. I just felt like life wasn’t worth living. My mum had been planning to come to Tokyo to watch me, but now she wasn’t going to be there, so I didn’t feel like going. It was only because of my family and coach that I was able to get my mental state back. I decided that I wanted to win it for mum and that was my inspiration. I had my mum watching over me and that pushed me on. It was very emotional receiving that medal. My first gold in Melbourne will always be the most special because she was there to watch me. Nothing can compare with that.”