Fraser, Dawn (1937—)

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Fraser, Dawn (1937—)

Australian swimmer, the greatest of her day, who was the first Olympian—male or female—to win the same event in three consecutive Games. Born Dawn Lorraine Fraser on September 4, 1937, in Balmain, Sydney, Australia; married Gary Ware (a bookmaker), in 1965 (divorced); children: one daughter.

Won gold medals in the 100-meter freestyle and the 4×100-meter freestyle relay and the silver medal in the 400-meter freestyle in the Melbourne Olympics (1956); won the gold medal in the 100-meter freestyle and silver medals in the 4×100-meter medley relay and the 4×100-meter freestyle relay in Rome Olympics (1960); won the gold medal in the 100-meter freestyle and the silver in the 4×100-meter freestyle relay in the Tokyo Olympics (1964); held 39 world records (27 individual and 12 team); held the record for the 100 meters for 16 years (1956–72); won 30 Australian championships (23 individual and 7 team); won eight medals (six gold and two silver) for the British Empire and Commonwealth Games; awarded the OBE.

On the night of October 28, 1962, after Dawn Fraser broke the 60-second mark in the 100 meters, one of the oldest records in swimming, a reporter asked how she planned to celebrate. Fraser, knowing she was at an emotional pitch and would be unable to sleep, replied: "I'll go to a party. And I'll drink a fair bit of beer.… I've worked so bloody hard for this night; now it's come, I'll have to unwind." It would be better, she was informed by a nearby official, to do her beer drinking away from the press. The incident typified the constant struggle between the rough-hewn, working-class Fraser and an elite sporting establishment that frowned on her behavior for the length of her career. Dawn Fraser was "the lone female representation of the happy-go-lucky, party-going images that characterized her male counterparts," wrote Bud Greenspan, and one of the greatest swimmers in the history of the sport.

Fraser was born on September 4, 1937, the youngest of four brothers and three sisters, and grew up in an old, semi-detached house that sat opposite an abandoned coal mine in Balmain, Australia, "the bleak, tired suburb," she wrote, "fronting the docks in Sydney." Her father was a shipwright who had immigrated to Australia from Scotland as a boy; her mother was from Balmain. At an early age, Fraser took up residence at the local pool, the Elkington Park Baths, swimming elbow to elbow with other kids and riding the back of her older brother Don off the high-diving tower. She idolized Don, eight years her senior, who taught her to swim. By age ten, Fraser was bouncing off the springboard so often that earaches kept her awake at night.

"I was a very ordinary kid," she wrote, "except maybe a bit cheekier, a bit sicklier." Fraser suffered from chronic asthma, possibly from the coal dust, and "other assorted chest troubles," including pleurisy. She was also allergic to chlorine; it made her eyes itchy. Otherwise, she had a "strange kind of affinity with the water," she wrote; "it makes me feel relaxed and content just to be in it. If I'm upset or in a cranky mood, I take a good long swim.… [B]y the time I haul myself out, I've forgotten what it was that was bothering me." Swimming also helped her asthma,

though she did not immediately put the two together. She only knew that swimming made her feel good; unconsciously, she was learning to discipline her breathing. She would spend the day at the pool breathing free then return home to wheeze and cough through the night.

According to Australian standards, Fraser began to swim seriously relatively late. Her cousin Ray Miranda, an amateur swim coach, urged her into competitive swimming; he also recommended that she join the Leichhardt-Balmain League, a professional swimming club. By age 11, Fraser was in her first serious race, beating out women three times her age.

Fraser was so athletically adept that her football-loving brothers let her play fullback when they practiced. But it was brother Don who was her pal, Don who stopped other boys from calling her "Dawn the prawn." When Fraser was 13, 21-year-old Don died of leukemia, three months after he had taken ill. "I thought I'd never recover from it," she wrote. Within weeks, she began to consider a serious career as a swimmer; it was Don who had told her if she worked at it, she could "finish up a champ." She would do it for Don.

With both parents laid up and Dawn the only unmarried daughter at home, she was given permission to quit school to take over the household responsibilities; she also took a part-time job at the local teen hangout, a milk bar. At 14, in 1951, Fraser entered the Western Suburbs championship with little hope of beating Lorraine Crapp , then a highly publicized up-and-comer. When Dawn narrowly beat Lorraine, Crapp's coach protested Fraser's association with the Leichhardt-Balmain League, and Fraser was stripped of the championship and her amateur status. For 18 months, she was not allowed to compete in amateur swimming. Instead, she enrolled at the Leichhardt Home Science School, but Fraser had become rebellious, contemptuous of authority. So she quit school at age 15 and took a job in a dress factory. As far as she was concerned, her career in swimming was over; she started smoking and acquired a rugged vocabulary.

Then the secretary of the Australian Swimming Union (ASU) looked over the books of Leichhardt-Balmain, ascertained that she had never won money for swimming, only trophies, and brought her case before the ASU, arguing that a child could not be expected to know the difference between amateur and professional. Throughout the controversy, she felt "puzzled and alone," a feeling she would experience "quite a lot" during her career. When she was told that she could compete once more, she was not sure she wanted to.

Enter Harry Gallagher. Gallagher, who coached champion Jon Henricks at his Golden Dolphins amateur swimming club at Drummoyne, only two miles from her house, had seen Fraser at the local pool and was impressed with her ability. He was less impressed with her boysterism. The smooth, manicured coach listened to his future protege "screeching around" the pool and it made him "shudder." She was like "a wild race horse out of the hills," he said, "with stacks of power and completely uncontrollable." Gallagher was a strict disciplinarian; Fraser hated authority in all forms. He agreed to train her for a year for free; she agreed to abide by his rules. Fortunately, for both of them, he gave her a little slack.

At that time, the sport of swimming in Australia was undergoing a massive change. Gallagher was one of four coaches on the frontline who had discovered the value of conditioning. For the rest of her swimming career, Fraser trained six months a year, five days a week, swimming seven or eight miles a day, sometimes with her ankles bound while towing an empty, open, four-gallon oil drum to build arm strength. Her enthusiasm for the sport began to get the best of her.

The summer of 1953 (in Australia, midsummer is in December–January), Fraser entered her first State championships for New South Wales (NSW) in the 110 and 220-yard races. In the 110, she finished third to Lorraine Crapp's first; in the 220, with Crapp out of the race, Fraser placed first by a touch, earning her a trip to Melbourne and the nationals in February 1954, but she did not place in Melbourne. The following year, Fraser made the reserve team for NSW to compete at the nationals in Adelaide. During the competition, when Crapp pulled out of the 220 because of ear trouble, Fraser entered the pool and won with a new Australian record of 2:29.5.

In September 1955, Gallagher took a coaching job in Adelaide and asked 18-year-old Dawn to continue her training there for six months. At first, her father was adamantly against letting her go that far from home, but he relented. In Adelaide, Fraser literally lived at the pool with Gallagher and his parents and took a job selling sportswear in a department store. She worked out continually, at the pool and in the weight room. "It was the most concentrated swimming buildup of my life. I honestly believe that it benefitted me for years afterward." Gallagher took blood samples of each of his swimmers, gave them heart-rate tests, fed them vitamins by the pound, tailored their diet, filmed them through observation windows at the pool, then analyzed the film. On weekends, Fraser took mountain hikes and chopped down trees on a piece of land Gallagher owned. That summer in Adelaide, she won every South Australian freestyle championship: the 110 yards, 220 yards, 440 yards, and 880 yards.

The 1956 nationals in Sydney would decide the Olympic trials squad. In the 110 and 440, Crapp was favored, having just broken five world records. Faith Leech was also expected to have a strong showing; Fraser was a dark horse. While Crapp took the 440, Fraser amazed the crowd by taking the 110 at 64.5, beating the women's world record of 64.6 set by Willie den Ouden for the Netherlands in 1936. This was a remarkable feat. In 1956, women swimmers were still wearing cotton swimsuits that weighed 10 pounds when wet. That week, she also won the 220-yard freestyle, smashing two 18-year-old world records in the 200 meters and 220 yards—2:20.6 and 2.21.2, respectively. (The 220-yard freestyle and the 200-meter freestyle are a difference of inches; the 220 being slightly longer; thus, a participant in the 220 could be clocked for both). Though she missed her family, Fraser returned to Adelaide with Gallagher following the games. Except for short visits, she never lived at home again.

On Saturday, December 1, 1956, at the summer Olympics held in Melbourne, 19-year-old Fraser mounted the block, extremely nervous, and heard the murmur of the crowd abruptly silenced. "You can almost hear a gigantic intake of breath," she wrote. As the gun sounded, her nerves disappeared, but at the halfway turn Crapp was ahead. The two swimmers raced at a dead heat, stroke for stroke, hitting the wall, at least by human eye, at the same time. Fraser had won her first gold medal at a world-record time of 62.0; Crapp was second, Faith Leech third—a clean sweep for the Aussies. Crapp, Leech, Fraser, and Sandra Morgan also took gold in the women's 4×100-meter freestyle relay.

In the 1958 Australian nationals, to every-one's surprise, Fraser won the 440 yards at 4:55.7, beating the favorite Ilsa Konrads . She also took the 110 yards and the 220 yards at 61.5 and 2:14.7, respectively. Fraser kept battering away at the 110-yard record, determined to break the minute mark, to go below 60 seconds. At the Empire Games in Cardiff, she won the 110-yard freestyle at 61.4, another world record, and was a member of the winning Australian relay squad who set a record of 4:17.4 in the 4x110; she then won in France and in Rotterdam, breaking the world record in the 110 at 61.2.

In 1959, despite a bout of hepatitis and a 14-pound weight loss, Fraser won the 110 in the Australian nationals at 61.7 and the 220 at 2:15.3. A year later, Gallagher suggested she enter the butterfly at the Sydney nationals. She did, breaking four world records within two days: the butterfly (70.8), the 100-meter and 110-yard free styles (60.2) and the 220-yard (2:11.6). "You have just seen the greatest performance of any woman athlete, in any sport, the world has yet known," the president of the Australian Swimming Union told the crowd.

The next time Fraser attempted the butterfly, however, she suffered from agonizing stomach cramps, and a doctor recommended that she drop the event from her agenda. She readily agreed. Though she had qualified for the butterfly for the 1960 Rome Olympics, she told the manager of the Australian Olympic team that she would no longer swim that race; she did not want to take the chance of bringing on stomach cramps that might knock her out of the race she really cared about, the 100-meter sprint.

Leech, Faith (1941—)

Australian swimmer. Born on June 18, 1941.

Faith Leech won the bronze medal in the 100-meter freestyle and the gold medal in the 4×100-meter freestyle in the Melbourne Olympics in 1956.

Ouden, Willemijntje den (1918—)

Dutch swimmer. Name variations: Willie den Ouden. Born in January 1918 in the Netherlands.

Dutch swimmer Willie van Ouden won silver medals in the 4×100-meter freestyle relay and the 100-meter freestyle at the 1932 Olympic Games in Los Angeles. In Berlin in 1936, she won a gold medal in the 4×100-meter freestyle relay. Her teammates were Catherina Wagner (b. 1919), Johanna Selbach (b. 1918), and Rie Mastenbroek .

Konrads, Ilsa (1944—)

Australian swimmer. Born on March 29, 1944.

In 1960, Ilsa Konrads won a silver medal in the Rome Olympics in the 4×100-meter freestyle relay.

Just before she left for the Rome Games, Fraser began to hear rumors questioning her sexual orientation; her morale plummeted. "For one thing," she wrote, "I stopped hugging girls who won races … and I've never done it since." She also became engaged to Ken Robinson. On the flight to Rome, the team had an unscheduled stopover in Bahrain, drank the water, and suffered what they dubbed "Rome tummy." To add to the tension, Lorraine Crapp had secretly married a divorced doctor Bill Thurlow who had been attending the Australian team during their pre-Olympic training. Crapp was supposed to be rooming with Fraser and Ruth Everuss , but she skipped out at night to be with her new husband, and they covered for her, having to lie about her whereabouts to their chaperon Joyce Ross . Fraser began to chafe under the arrangement and begged Crapp to tell Syd Grange the team manager. Lorraine confessed, the Australian Federation demanded she stay in the women's village at night, the reporters broke the story, and Crapp lost her fighting form and swam badly.

That same week, Fraser had to defend her title in the 100-meter freestyle from American Chris von Saltza who had broken Fraser's record with a 61.9 in an earlier heat. But Fraser was one of those with Rome tummy; she had constant dysentery, no energy, couldn't eat, and lost weight. Even so, she swam hard and recouped the record in her heat at 61.4. In the finals, Fraser beat von Saltza for the gold medal with a 61.2 world record. An ecstatic Fraser was now the first woman to win the sprint gold medal twice in a row and the only Australian woman to win in Rome. Her ecstasy lasted for about 24 hours.

The next day at 2:00 in the afternoon, as she sat in the dining hall eating a platter of pasta after a day of walking the town, Roger Pegram, manager of the Australian swimming team, hurried in and told her to get to the pool, that she was to swim the butterfly leg in the medley heat that afternoon. Knowing she was ill-prepared, Fraser protested that to her knowledge she was to swim the freestyle leg in the final. He was adamant; they argued, and she refused. What she did not know, and he did not tell her, was that Jan Andrew , who was supposed to swim the butterfly leg, had made the butterfly finals set for that evening, and the coaches wanted to save her energy. As a result of Fraser's balk, her team did not speak to her for the rest of the week (which included the day of her 23rd birthday on September 4). The Australian women's team won a disappointing silver medal in the 4×100-meter medley relay, which Fraser competed in, and returned home despondent.

In February 1961, on the strength of Pegram's report to the committee, the ASU branded Fraser a person unworthy to represent her country because she did not do her best "in and out of the water" and pulled her from the Australian teams competing in South Africa and New Zealand. Without warning or an offer to hear her side, the ASU charged in the media: 1) she did not try to win in the Olympic 4×100-meter freestyle championship (Fraser claims she gave it her all but, by that time, was an emotional and physical mess); 2) she clobbered Jan Andrew who won a bronze medal in the butterfly for Australia (the swimmers had been sitting around a room, gossiping; at one point, there was a violent exchange and Fraser leveled a pillow at Andrew; it was reported that she socked her); 3) she refused to wear an Australian track-suit, even on the dais when receiving her gold medal (hers, she says, was wet); 4) she took part in an unauthorized exhibition in Switzerland (after the Olympics, on the way to the Paris Games, Fraser stopped off in Zurich, used the community pool to unwind, and there were onlookers). Then the secretary of the ASU said to the press, "that's not all she did," and left it at that, leading to a heyday for speculators, especially those concerned with her sexual preferences. Fraser was devastated by the ASU stance. She wrote a letter of apology, but the ASU told the press it was not apologetic enough. Even so, she took the 100-meters in 61 seconds and the 400-meter in 4:49.7 at the Brisbane nationals.

There were many on Fraser's side, including a hefty portion of the population of Australia who greeted her at poolside with "Good on ya, Dawnee." They loved her, not despite her resistance to authority, but because of it. The ASU, and most of Australian sport, was considered snobbish, using its might against one of the working-class. One critic described the Pegram report as "one of the most vindictive documents ever penned." An Australian senator called the actions of the ASU petty. The South Australian Swimming Association was more sympathetic and had Fraser represent them in meets out of the country. Nothing seemed to go right in 1961. There was a misunderstanding with a police officer in Adelaide, and she was arrested for loitering and spent the night in jail. At trial, the police prosecutor apologized, announcing that she was "innocent of any offense." Fraser was at her lowest ebb; she felt trouble-prone. Two days after Christmas, her father died of lung cancer.

In the 1962 Melbourne nationals, Fraser won four more titles, bringing her Australian championship tally up to 20. Judy Joy Davies had held the record at 18.) Despite the titles, Fraser was intent on breaking the minute. By the end of 1962, though there had been no official announcement from the ASU that she was through being punished, there were a few hints that her ostracism might be over—just in time for the British Empire Games in Perth, Western Australia. During the trials in Melbourne on October 28, 1962, she won the 440 and finally broke the minute at 59.9 in the 110. "I can't say how much that performance meant to me. Swimming officials described it as one of the greatest sporting achievements of the century. For me, four years of bloody-hard striving were suddenly ended. I sat around in the dressing room afterward feeling half stunned.… I remember wondering if that crum my little tenth had been worth all of four years." Oddly enough, once she proved to herself that she could get inside the one-minute barrier, "it stopped being any sort of barrier for me." At Perth, she covered the 110 at 59.6. She then swam two relay legs under a minute and took the 440. Fraser won four gold medals in the Empire games.

The year 1964 held much more promise. In February at the Australian nationals in Sydney, Fraser again clocked a world record of 58.9 in the 110 yards and took the 220 at 2:13.0 and the 440 at 4:50.6, equaling Chris von Saltza's Olympic record. With the ASU sanctions at an end, she looked forward to the Tokyo Olympics in October. If she won, and to do so she would have to beat an upcoming American named Sharon Stouder , Fraser would be the first Olympian—male or female—to win a gold medal in the same event three times in succession.

After the nationals, Fraser and her mother stayed in Sydney for a holiday. Since her father's death, Fraser and her mother had grown close, and the two looked forward to Tokyo; it would be her mother's first trip overseas. While driving back from a dinner party at the Balmain Rugby League club, having swilled nothing stronger than orange juice, Fraser came around a curve at 40 mph and rear-ended a truck that had been parked out into the road while the driver went fishing. Fraser's mother was killed; her sister Rose was injured, and a friend, Wendy Walters , was facially scarred. Fraser, who had a chipped vertebrae, spent nine weeks with her neck in a steel brace, battling depression and overwhelming guilt. It took her brothers and sisters to convince her to prepare for Tokyo; their mother, they said, would want her to go for the biggest record of them all.

At the Tokyo Olympics, Fraser was in hot water from the very first day when she marched in with her team. No swimmer with a meet within three days could march, but Fraser, who had missed the opening march in the Rome Olympics and wasn't about to do that again, did so anyway. She also bucked wearing the official swimsuit, preferring one of the same color and pattern made by another company that didn't chafe and hamper her breathing. Her rebellion might not have been arbitrary for someone with asthma. Breathing was as important to a swimmer at it was to a singer. Kathleen Ferrier wore gowns that would allow for at least a 3" expansion of the diaphragm.

On the day of the 100 meters on October 13, though her asthma had kicked up, Fraser clipped more precious seconds off her record, coming in at 59.5. Fifteen-year-old Stouder, who took the silver, became the second woman ever to break the minute. Though Fraser missed her parents looking down from the stands, it was, she wrote, a "mighty night." That mighty night, still keyed up, Fraser, with the help of others, was caught by the Japanese police while trying to cop an Olympic flag from the grounds of Emperor Hirohito's Palace, a prank known only to the Japanese police and the pranksters until the publication of her autobiography. Despite her apparent rebellion, there were those in the official ranks who quietly championed her. For the closing ceremony, she was asked to carry the Australian banner (the first Australian woman to do so) and the Japanese constabulary privately gave her the confiscated Olympic flag.

von Saltza, Chris (1944—)

American swimmer. Born on January 3, 1944.

Chris von Saltza won four swimming medals during the Rome Olympics in 1960: the silver for the 100-meter freestyle, the gold in the 400-meter freestyle, and two golds in the relays, the 4×100 medley and 4×100 freestyle.

Andrew, Jan (1943—)

Australian swimmer. Born on November 25, 1943.

Jan Andrew won a bronze medal in the 100-meter butterfly and a silver medal in the 4×100-meter medley relay in the Rome Olympics in 1960.

Davies, Judy Joy (1928—)

Australian swimmer. Born in June 1928.

Judy Joy Davies won the bronze medal in the 100-meter backstroke in the London Olympics in 1948. She also held 18 Australian championships.

When she arrived back home all of Australia rejoiced with Fraser fever. Just before Tokyo, Fraser had met Gary Ware, a bookmaker; within weeks, he had proposed, and they agreed to wed after the Games. The marriage, though brief, took place on January 30, 1965. Then, the ASU issued a press release:

The Union … is determined that it will maintain a strong discipline especially among the members of its teams who represent Australia overseas. It is with deep regret that the Union finds it necessary to take strong action arising out of incidents which occurred in Tokyo.

They then suspended "Mrs. Dawn Fraser Ware" from all forms of competitive swimming for ten years, and three other women swimmers were given lighter suspensions. Though the charges were not specific, it was understood that all four were suspended for marching in the opening day ceremony and Fraser for her nonregulation swimsuit. The ASU was then unaware of the incident with the Japanese police. Though the suspension lasted only four years, by then, Fraser was 31, too old to compete.

In 1988, 23 years later, Dawn Fraser was elected to the New South Wales (NSW) Parliament, where she represented Balmain until 1991. That same year, she was named Australia's greatest female athlete. The Elkington Park Baths were renamed the Dawn Fraser Pool.


Fraser, Dawn, with Harry Gordon. Below the Surface: The Confessions of an Olympic Champion. NY: William Morrow, 1965.

Greenspan, Bud. 100 Greatest Moments in Olympic History. Los Angeles, CA: General Publishing, 1995.

Oxford Companion to Australian Sport. Melbourne, Oxford University Press, 1992.

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Fraser, Dawn (1937—)

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