Durack puts women’s swimming on the Olympic map
The 1912 Games were a groundbreaking edition for female Olympians. For the first time, swimming competitions for women were included – with 100m freestyle and 4x100m freestyle races on the programme.
It was certainly the right stage for Fanny Durack, and the right time too. Born in Sydney in 1889, the Australian grew up as a breaststroke specialist and was quickly recognised as something of a prodigy. Still a schoolgirl when she won her first New South Wales state title in 1896, she quickly became the swimmer to beat at national level too. She enjoyed a close and very friendly rivalry with another Sydney swimmer, Mina Wylie, and the two spurred each other on to ever greater heights. By the time the Olympic Games came around, Durack had set world records over 100 yards and 220 yards, with Wylie behind her by a whisker. There was a public clamour at home for them to go head-to-head in the Olympic pool, but the New South Wales Swimming Federation – which had originally decreed that women could not compete in an event at which men were present – said that they could only do so if they raised their own funds. This was achieved after a successful fundraising appeal, and the pair set sail for Sweden with the rest of the Australian team to test their skills against the world’s best.
Before heading for Stockholm, Durack stopped off in London where she completed her training, swimming half a mile each day. Compared with most of the mainly Europe-based field at the Games, she appeared to be relatively ill-prepared. But by 8 July, the date of her first 100m heat she showed few signs of rustiness.
Having seen Wylie win heat three without difficulty, Durack took to the water for the next race. She “won as she liked”, according to the Official Report – and set a new Olympic Record of 1:19.8, too, a comfortable 7.4 seconds ahead of runner-up Irene Steer and exactly seven seconds ahead of the time Wylie had set in the previous heat.
The semi-finals took place on 11 July, with Durack and Wylie separated once more. This time Durack was first into the pool, and the outcome was the same. “Miss Durack, who swims a distinctively Australian crawl, won as she liked,” repeated the Official Report as she came through in 1:20.2, this time finishing 6.6 seconds ahead of second-placed British swimmer Daisy Curwen. Wylie had a much harder time of things, eventually winning her race by 0.2 seconds from another Briton, Jennie Fletcher, in a time of 1:27.2.
It looked set to be a two-way race for the gold medal between the two Australians, and there was plenty of anticipation for the final, which took place on the evening of 12 July. In the event, there was little of the drama that had been expected. Durack led the race from start to finish, while Wylie looked relatively comfortable in second place. The winning time was 1:22.2, with Wylie coming in at 1:25.4. Durack had made history by becoming the first-ever female swimmer to win an Olympic gold medal.
Following the Games, she found herself much in demand to compete in events across Europe. She and Wylie toured the continent together and also competed in the USA. Between 1912 and 1918, Durack broke a remarkable 12 world records and became an influential figure for female swimmers throughout the world. Although she had been due to compete at the 1920 Games in Antwerp, an appendectomy meant she had to withdraw, so 1912 remained her only appearance on the Olympic stage. She retired in 1921 but became a coach in her native New South Wales before passing away in 1956.