The first-ever women’s Olympic swimming event was the 100m freestyle, a competition that began on 8 July 1912, at the Olympic Games in Stockholm. Competing for Australasia, 22-year-old swimming sensation Fanny Durack, who had taken to the “Australian crawl” better than anyone, was in scintillating form, setting a world record in the heats and securing a comfortable victory in the final. In doing so, she claimed the first-ever women’s Olympic swimming gold medal and became Australia’s first female Olympic medallist.
Two trailblazers for Australian women’s sport – who also happened to be fierce rivals – made the journey to Stockholm in 1912, via London, to represent Australasia (Australia and New Zealand) in the swimming competition at the Games of the V Olympiad: Fanny Durack and Mina Wylie. Both were from Sydney and both were members of the New South Wales Ladies Amateur Swimming Association. Two years earlier, the International Olympic Committee had decided to include a women’s swimming event – the 100m freestyle – on the Olympic programme for the first time. Another race would be added at the instigation of the British: the 400m team event, i.e. the 4x100m relay.
Durack and Wylie had to overcome a number of obstacles. Their club was opposed to having women take part in the Games and banned them from competing in front of men. But Durack, born on 7 October 1889, and Wylie, two years her junior, were able to travel to Sweden thanks to a local fundraising effort. Durack in particular had been racking up victories. As the Sydney-based newspaper, The Barrier Miner, put it: “If there is any athlete in Australasia who should go to the great contests, it is this young Sydney swimmer”, pointing out her numerous records, her 56 medals and the 100-or-so trophies she had won. “If this formidable array is not a record that Australia should be proud of in one of her daughters, then there is no such thing as national pride.”
Overwhelming superiority from the heats to the final
The swimming course for the Stockholm Games was 100m long and 20m wide. It was built in the bay of Djurgårdsbrunnsviken in the centre of the Swedish capital, off the shore of the island of Djurgården. Semi-electronic timing, capable of registering time to a tenth of a second, was used for the first time.
The women’s 100m freestyle competition featured 27 swimmers representing eight nations. The heats began on Monday 8 July 1912. Wylie was the first of the two Australians in action the following day: she won her race in 1:26.8. In the following heat, Durack, who excelled in the stroke known as the “Australian crawl” – which would subsequently come to be used almost universally in the freestyle – made quite a splash. The Official Report of the Games simply stated: “She won hands down.” In fact, she swam the distance seven seconds faster than her compatriot, setting a new world record of 1:19.8 in the process.
The duel within the competition continued in the semi-finals, which began at noon on 11 July. Durack won her race in a time of 1:20.1. “Miss Durack, who swims a distinctively Australian crawl, won as she liked. The fight for second place was intense,” noted the Official Report. The other semi-final was won by Wylie in 1:27.0, with Great Britain’s Jenny Fletcher running her extremely close (1:27.1).
The final took place on 12 July. Durack led from start to finish, and made history by becoming the first ever female Olympic champion in swimming, and the first Australian woman to win gold at the Games. She claimed victory in a time of 1:22.1, finishing more than three seconds ahead of Wylie (1:25.4). Fletcher and Grete Rosenberg battled it out for bronze, with Fletcher pipping the German by 0.1 seconds. Hence the first podium for a women’s Olympic swimming competition featured two Australians, representing Australasia, and one Briton. On 15 July, the final of the 4x100m relay was comfortably won by a Great Britain team (Bella Moore, Jenny Fletcher, Annie Spiers and Irene Steer) that finished well ahead of Germany, who clinched silver after putting considerable daylight between themselves and bronze medal-winning Austria.
Records in all distances
Durack made a triumphant return to Australia, and she continued to add to her legendary status in the years that followed. She actively campaigned against all forms of sexism, receiving support from Margaret McIntosh, the wife of wealthy entrepreneur Hugh McIntosh, who had launched the initiative to fund Durack’s trip to Stockholm. In February 1913, Margaret organised a women’s race to which male spectators were allowed entry for the first time. Durack, naturally, emerged victorious, beating the 100-yard world record. She set 12 world records up until 1918, holding them in all the distances recognised by the International Swimming Federation, and in March 1914 she swam a mile in open water in a time of 26 minutes 8 seconds, beating the New South Wales men’s record by 52 seconds.
On the back of her remarkable achievements and the reputation she had built up, she embarked on a tour of the United States in 1918 and 1919 with Wylie, whose stock was similarly high. Durack was preparing for the Antwerp Games in 1920, but she had to undergo an urgent appendectomy and was forced to pull out of the competition. She retired in 1921 but remained in the world of swimming, spending the rest of her life coaching young swimmers back in Sydney. She died after a long illness on 20 March 1956, at the age of 66. In 1967, Durack was among the first champions to be inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame, as an “Honour Swimmer”, and her memory lives on at Sydney Olympic Park, built for the 2000 Games, where an avenue was named after her.
Fanny Durack had blazed the trail, and women’s swimming at the Games developed rapidly: backstroke and breaststroke events were included on the programme in Paris in 1924; butterfly was added in Helsinki in 1952; and the 800m freestyle made its debut in Mexico City in 1968. Full parity between men’s and women’s events was finally achieved at the Montreal Games in 1976. Legendary champions have continued to write their names, in gold, in Olympic history, in a sport which will see three new events in Tokyo in 2020: the men will do battle in the 800m freestyle, like their female counterparts; the women will race in the 1,500m, the longest pool distance, for the first time; and a spectacular new event – the mixed 4x100 medley relay – will be introduced. We have certainly come a long way.