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24 Jul 1976
Montreal 1976

Wilkie breaks US men’s swimming stranglehold - Swimming

The mighty US swimming team headed to Montreal confident that they could produce a clean sweep of the titles on offer. Their optimism was understandable. With the likes of John Naber, Bruce Furniss and John Hencken in their ranks, they boasted one of the most powerful squads ever assembled.

Great Britain’s David Wilkie had other ideas, and was determined to become the first Briton to prevail in the Olympic pool since 1908.

Wilkie was born and raised in Sri Lanka, but it was only when he was sent back to school in his family’s native Scotland at the age of 11 that his prospects as a swimmer really took off.

He made his international debut at the age of just 15 and a year later he broke the national record in the 200m breaststroke, his favourite event.

A year later, at the 1970 Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh the teenager claimed a bronze in front of his home crowd. That was the prelude to a remarkable performance at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, where he  finished runner-up to Hencken.

A year after that he was crowned world champion in Belgrade, turning the tables on Hencken with a world record time in the final.  After securing a swimming scholarship at the University of Miami his performances moved to the next level.

By the time Montreal 1976 came around, Wilkie’s rivalry with Hencken had assumed epic proportions. The American drew first blood, winning the 100m breaststroke final from his British opponent and setting a new world record in the process.

Two days later, the two men took centre stage at the Olympic Pool once more, this time for the 200m breaststroke final.

Wilkie, the only one of the eight finalists to sport a white cap, was neck and neck with Hencken through the first 100m, but then at the halfway point the Scotsman turned on the power.

He gradually eased clear at the final turn, eventually winning by 2.3 metres in a world record time of two minutes 15.11 seconds.

It was a record that would stand for eight years and marked Wilkie out as the only male swimmer capable of breaking the American hegemony in the pool. 

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