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02 Aug 1952
Helsinki 1952

Davies floats like a butterfly to win breaststroke gold

Watch the final of the 200m breaststroke in Helsinki and you cannot fail to notice something remarkable. Not the high quality of the competition, nor the tactical brilliance of Australia’s John Davies. What stands out most is that none of the swimmers are actually doing breaststroke.

Back in the 1950s, butterfly, a relatively new innovation, was still considered to be a type of breaststroke, and it had been gaining ever greater popularity among leading swimmers. In Helsinki, for the first time, all eight finalists chose to adopt the butterfly. As it turned out, it was also destined to be the last. By the time of the 1956 Games in Melbourne, the butterfly had been given its own separate event.

The favourite in a tough field was world record holder Herbert Klein of West Germany, with Davies, who had just missed out on a medal in London four years earlier, expected to provide a stiff challenge.

Since then, Davies had improved, breaking the 200 yard breaststroke world record earlier that year. His preparations for Helsinki, though, had been poor and he was so concerned about being fit to race that he ended up focusing more on getting enough sleep rather than swimming.

His performance in the heats suggested he had conquered any problems, as he posted a solid time to qualify for the semi-finals. He then stepped it up a gear, breaking the Olympic record to finish as the fastest qualifier for the final.

Davies’ style was all about maintaining an even, regular pace. It had served him brilliantly well so far, but some wondered whether the excitement, adrenaline and unpredictability of an Olympic final would force him into a rethink. The converse was true. Davies became even more metronomic, determined to stay patient and stick to his tactics.

He maintained the same pace for each length. While his rivals shot off for the first length, he concentrated on his own plan. Despite trailing by more than two seconds at one point, he refused to panic, conserving energy and remaining confident that his tactics would eventually prevail. Sure enough, as the other swimmers, including Klein, began to tire and their lead over him diminished. Finally Davies passed Klein and touched the wall first. 0.3 seconds ahead of the USA’s Bowen Stassforth to set a new Olympic record.

It was a cathartic moment for Davies. Four years earlier, the closing seconds of the final had brought him disappointment as a judges’ decision denied him a place on the podium by a fraction of a second. This time, they had delivered him the greatest win of his life.

Davies retired after Helsinki 1952 and went to university in the USA to study law. He eventually took American citizenship and later became a prominent judge.

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