Durack, Fanny (1889–1956)

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Durack, Fanny (1889–1956)

Australia's first female Olympic gold medalist, who once held every world record in women's swimming from 100 yards to 1 mile. Name variations: Sarah Durack. Born Sarah Durack in Sydney, Australia, on October 27, 1889; died of cancer in Stanmore, Australia, on March 20, 1956; third daughter and sixth child of Thomas Durack (a Sydney publican) and Mary (Mason) Durack; married Bernard Martin Gately (a horse trainer), on January 22, 1921.

Won the gold medal in the 100-meter freestyle in Stockholm Olympics (1912); broke 12 world records (1912–18).

Fanny Durack, Australia's first female Olympic gold medalist, may also have held a record for the number of controversies surrounding her competitions. She was born in Sydney in 1889, one of six children of Thomas and Mary Mason Durack . She learned to swim at the Coogee and Wylie baths, where she trained in the breast stroke, which was then the only style used in women's competition. She won her first State title in 1906, while still a schoolgirl.

In Durack's era, competitive swimming for women was still in its infancy. The first recorded women's world swimming record was set in 1908 by Martha Gerstung of Germany in 100-meter freestyle competition. By 1911, Durack had changed her stroke to the American crawl, now considered a competitive stroke for women as well as men. Along with fellow Australian Wilhelmina Wylie , Fanny was poised to enter the Stockholm Olympic Games of 1912, the first year that swimming and diving for women were introduced to the Olympics. At this juncture the problems began. First, the men in charge of the Australian team thought it a waste of time and money to send women to the Games. Second, the possibility of women performing athletics in front of men caused great controversy. Durack and Wylie were being sponsored by the Sydney branch of the New South Wales Ladies' Amateur Swimming Association (NSWLSA), which in 1912 did not allow women to compete in front of male spectators. The prevalent theory responsible for this policy—held also by Pierre de Coubertin, father of the Olympics—was that male spectators would come to women's competitions for salacious reasons rather than to watch the women compete. Sports for women, concluded another Olympic organizer, was considered "morally questionable," a position which denied women the right to compete due to men's perceived inability to consider women as anything other than objects for their viewing pleasure. Rose Scott , president of the NSWLSA Sydney branch, was both a powerful feminist and an ardent believer in social purity. She was also publicly adamant that the women not compete in front of a mixed crowd but for a subtly different reason. "I think it is disgusting," she was quoted as saying, "that men should be allowed to attend" at all.

Following a public outcry, the rule was rescinded, Scott resigned her presidency, and Durack and Wylie were on their way, but only when they agreed to pay for their own trips. Funds were raised to send Durack, while Wylie's family footed the bill for her travel. (Durack and Wylie, intense rivals, traveled separately. Chaperoned by her sister Mary, Durack traveled on a French mail steamer, the Armand Behie; Wylie, accompanied by her father, was on board the RMS Malvia.)

The 1912 Stockholm Games provided one individual swimming event for women, the 100-meter freestyle, and a team relay event, the 400 meters. During the first heat of the 100-meter freestyle, Durack, wearing a long woollen swimsuit with a skirt, beat Daisy Curwen 's world record with a time of 19.8 seconds. In the second heat, Durack even beat Curwen who was then hastily transported out of the building on a stretcher for a date with an appendectomy. On July 15, despite running into the side wall of the pool, Durack won the freestyle and the gold medal handily in 1:22.2 (her time was the same as the men's winner that year), while Wylie came in second. Jennie Fletcher of Great Britain, whose life included a 72-hour work week in a textile factory in Leicester with little time for training, came in third. The event was a clean sweep for the Commonwealth nations. There was no American women's swim team in Stockholm; America's female swimmers had been effectively blocked from competing by James Sullivan, chief organizer of the American team.

After the Olympics, Durack and Wylie showcased their skills on tours throughout Europe and the U.S., causing further controversy. When they arrived in America without official sanction in 1918, they were banned by the Amateur Swimming Union of Australia. The following year, they faced suspension of their amateur status when they refused to swim until their manager's expenses were paid. The tour ended for good after Durack jumped the starter's gun during a swim in Chicago.

Wylie, Wilhelmina (b. 1892)

Australian swimmer. Name variations: Mina Wylie. Born Wilhelmina Wylie in Australia in 1892. Won the silver medal in the 100-meter freestyle in Stockholm Olympics of 1912.

Fletcher, Jennie (1890–1968)

British swimmer. Name variations: Jenny. Born in Great Britain on March 19, 1890; died in 1968. Won the bronze medal in the 100-meter freestyle and the gold medal in the 4×100-meter freestyle relay in Stockholm Olympics of 1912.

Durack was unable to defend her title in the 1920 Antwerp Olympics, because she underwent her own appendectomy a week before the team's departure. However, between the years of 1912 and 1918, she broke 12 world records and

did a great deal to promote women's swimming. She retired from competition after her marriage in 1921 but continued to coach and to serve on the New South Wales Women's Amateur Swimming Association. Fanny Durack died of cancer on March 20, 1956. In 1967, she was posthumously elected to the International Swimming Hall of Fame. In December 1990, a headstone was placed at her unmarked grave in Waverley Cemetery in Sydney.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts