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31 Jul 1952
Helsinki 1952

Harrison triumphs in battle of breaststroke starlets

Of the eight swimmers who started the women’s 100m backstroke final, six were teenagers, including three 16-year-olds and the 15-year-old American Barbara Stark.

The favourite was 18-year-old Geertje Wielema of the Netherlands, but her preparations were blighted by illness. The Dutch swimmer had done very little training for six months before the Games, a setback that might well have stopped lesser athletes from even competing. She proved her strength in the semi-final, where she set a new Olympic record in qualifying, sparking hopes that an amazing victory could be on the way. But in the final she found herself pitched against yet another impressive teenager - South Africa’s Joan Harrison.

Harrison had already caught the eye in the 100m freestyle, just missing out on a gold medal, so her stock was rising rapidly. She and Wielema were next to each other in lanes four and five, and the two matched each other stroke for stroke. As they headed for the finish it seemed impossible to separate them. Wielema glanced across at her rival, and she couldn't tell who was leading. In years to come, though, she was to wonder whether that glance had cost her a precious fraction of a second.

In fact, even at the end, it wasn't clear who had won. Some officials appeared to believe the Dutch athlete had touched first, others were adamant that the victory belonged to Harrison. Finally the decision came: gold for Harrison, silver for Wielema.

The South African team were jubilant, and astonished. Their team manager was so amazed that he fainted.

Harrison later took part in the British Empire Games in 1954, winning four two golds, a silver and a bronze, but then retired from competitive swimming before her 18th birthday, meaning that Helsinki 1952 was her only appearance on the Olympic stage. Wielema meanwhile became European champion in 1954, but missed out on another chance to win Olympic gold after the Dutch team withdrew from the 1956 Games.


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