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03 Sep 1960
Rome 1960

Backstroke queen Burke sends Olympic records toppling

Going into Rome 1960, the women's 100m backstroke world record set by the Dutch swimmer Cor Kint had stood for more than two decades. She had swum 1 minute 10.9 seconds, knocking two seconds off the previous record and frustrating the world's best backstrokers for the next 21 years. Over subsequent years, people began to wonder if anyone would ever beat that mark?

In the summer of 1960, with the Olympic Games on the horizon, her famous benchmark was equalled by another Dutch swimmer, Ria van Velsen.

But could anyone actually better it? The answer came only a week later, thanks to the USA’s Lynn Burke. A year earlier, she had not even been considered the best backstroker in her own country, but her progress in the run-up to the Olympics was extraordinary. Over the course of the 1960 swimming season, she lowered the record three times within just three months before the Games, which meant she arrived in Rome as a huge favourite for gold.

Her performances did not disappoint. In the qualifying round, she beat the field by more than three seconds, setting a new Olympic record in the process with a time of 1 minute 9.4 seconds, 1.5 seconds quicker than Kint's legendary and long-standing world record. Nobody else qualified anywhere near that time.

In the final, Burke went even quicker, dropping her Olympic record by a further 0.1 seconds to claim gold. Great Britain's Natalie Steward took silver, 1.5 seconds off the pace, while van Velsen, the swimmer who had first matched Kint's time, could finish no higher than seventh.

Burke went on to take a second gold in the medley relay. She retired from swimming but went on to enjoy success as a model, author and businesswoman.

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