Dawn Fraser arrived in Tokyo for the 1964 Games as a three-time gold medal-winner on the verge of completing an extraordinary Olympic first. But she was also a lost 27-year-old dealing with severe pain and tragedy. Weeks later she left Japan as a record-breaker and, perhaps more importantly, with a renewed faith in humanity.
Australian Dawn Fraser had one thing on her mind as she stood on the blocks before the final of the women’s 100m freestyle at the Olympic Games Tokyo 1964. It was not that she was less than 60 seconds away from perhaps becoming one of the greatest Olympic swimmers of all time. It was far more personal and heart-breaking.
“I looked up in the sky and felt my mother’s wedding ring on my finger and I said, ‘This is for you, Mum’,” Fraser recalled 56 years later, the emotion still clear in her voice.
Just nine months previously, Fraser had been driving the car involved in an accident which killed her mother.
“No one was going to beat me that night. It was the most special swim I had in my life. For my mum.”
Right from the moment the Melbourne 1956 and Rome 1960 100m freestyle champion had landed in Tokyo, she had felt the warmth and support of the Japanese people. And, according to the now 83-year-old Fraser, it was that which allowed her to continue her ascent to the very top of her sport.
“They took to me and they helped me get over it for a little while whilst I was swimming,” Fraser said. “They were like my family; they were very supportive of me. Thousands, millions of photographs – you would go out of the [Olympic] Village and there would be all these children and people there wanting to have a photograph with you.
“That was the reason I felt they really accepted me. Obviously, they must have known about the car accident where my mother was killed and that I was the driver of the car. That got to me.”
The poignancy does not stop. Fraser’s mum was supposed to have been poolside in Tokyo as her daughter attempted to become the first swimmer to win the same individual event at three consecutive Olympic Games.
Both parents had seen her break the world record en route to her first 100m freestyle gold at her home Games in Melbourne in 1956 and had been there when she added the 4x100m freestyle relay crown. But they had been unable to afford to go to Rome in 1960 when Fraser won her second 100m freestyle gold by more than a second – a relative eternity in a two-length race. And that was enough to galvanise the people of the family’s working-class Sydney district of Balmain.
“They said if I got into the Tokyo Olympics, they would start running some raffles from ’62 up to the time Tokyo was on and they would pay for my mum’s airfare and accommodation and food and travelling expenses,” Fraser explained.
“That money went to charity after my mother passed.”
It was not only mental turmoil that Fraser had to deal with in Tokyo. She was also battling the after-effects of having spent weeks in a neck brace following the crash.
“The only thing that was really worrying me was my doctor said I wasn’t allowed to dive unless I was diving for my race,” the Australian said. “Tokyo was the first time I’d dived into the water after the accident and coming out of the neck brace. My coach wouldn’t allow me to dive in. In all my training I pushed off the wall. But I never lost my diving start, I always had a good diving start.”
This unbreakable confidence was a huge part of Fraser’s make-up and perhaps never more important than in Tokyo in 1964. Despite everything, the bullish Aussie never doubted herself. The USA’s Sharon Stouder may have arrived in the Japanese capital as a true teenage prodigy – a label she more than justified by winning three gold medals – but Fraser could not have cared less.
“I never worried about opponents. It didn’t matter how I was swimming or where I was swimming, I never worried about opponents,” she said. “I used to watch what they did and then I would work on my own race and that was the end of it. They were just a name to me, and it wasn’t important. I had my lane, I had my black line [to follow along the bottom of the pool] and I had to get up to the 50m and turn and be home in first place. That was all I ever thought about.”
It was an attitude dedicated coach Harry Gallagher agreed with entirely. Still referred to as “Mr Gallagher” by Fraser, he was an intrinsic part of every success.
“He understood you as an individual. He didn’t try to change anything, but he made you stronger in the water. He never changed my style,” said Fraser, who remained a straight-armed underwater swimmer throughout her career.
Now aged 96, he still speaks to Fraser once a week, and the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 will no doubt feature heavily in their conversations next year. His former pupil mentors several top Australian swimmers, one of whom, Lani Pallister, she is particularly excited about.
“She’s got the right temperament, a beautiful mind for her sport,” Fraser said of the 18-year-old who broke the Australian 800m freestyle short course record in September 2020.
Another person Fraser hopes to see win in Tokyo is USA star Katie Ledecky. The 800m freestyle specialist is aiming to become just the fourth swimmer, after Michael Phelps, Krisztina Egerszegi and Fraser, to win three consecutive gold medals in the same individual Olympic event.
“I love the way she swims, and I love the way she controls herself,” Fraser said. “She just loves swimming like I used to like it. She gets so much enjoyment out of it. I hope she is the next swimmer to go three in a row. I think it would be absolutely fantastic to have another woman.”
Fraser, who has been back to Japan numerous times in the 56 years since she lit up the last Games Tokyo hosted, will not miss a minute of the action and she will, no doubt, live every stroke of the women’s 100m freestyle final.
“Tokyo was something very special because my mum was supposed to be there, but she wasn’t there. It meant everything to me to win that race, it was for her.”