Dawn Fraser was the first female inductee into the Sport Australia Hall of Fame in 1985 as an Athlete Member for her contribution to the sport of swimming and was Elevated to “Legend of Australian Sport” in 1993.
Fraser is probably Australia’s most decorated and most controversial athlete of all time. Known for her politically incorrect behaviour and larrikin character as much as her athletic ability, she won eight Olympic medals, and six British Empire and Commonwealth Games gold medals.
She won the Olympic 100m freestyle title at the 1956 Melbourne Games and went on to win it again at the 1960 Rome Games and the 1964 Tokyo Games, becoming the first and only swimmer of either sex to win the same event at three successive Olympics. She was the first woman to break the minute for the 100m freestyle, held the world record for that distance for an incredible sixteen years, and possessed 23 individual world records and was part of 12 team world records.
Fraser was four when she learned to swim at the Balmain Baths in Sydney, New South Wales, and was competing seriously by the age of 11. Suffering asthma, swimming helped her breathing. Coach Harry Gallagher recognised the raw talent and persuaded her to join his squad at Drummoyne, where he was pool manager. He even waived his normal fee of 12 guineas for six months.
She was disqualified after her first amateur race at the age of 14, on the grounds that she had been involved with a professional club. She had to stand down from swimming for eighteen months, and benefited then from the advocacy of Bill Berge-Phillips, secretary of the Amateur Swimming Union of Australia (ASU). He went to immense trouble to establish that she had never received prize money.
After the NSW titles in 1953/54, in which she finished third to Lorraine Crapp in the 100yds freestyle, and won the 220yds freestyle, she travelled to Melbourne for the 1954 national titles, and finished third in the 110yds freestyle.
Fraser failed to win at the NSW titles of 1954/55, which were dominated by Crapp, but was chosen to go to Adelaide for the nationals as a reserve member of the NSW team for the 220yds. When Crapp was forced to withdraw, Fraser was given the chance to compete. She won the 220yds in Australian record time of 2 min 29.5 sec. It was that victory, more than anything else, which caused her to devote herself utterly to training and improving.
When Fraser was 17, Gallagher was offered the chance to manage the City Baths in Adelaide, and he persuaded her parents to let her go and train under him in Adelaide. The following summer, 1955/56, she won every South Australian individual freestyle title – 110yds, 220yds, 440yds, and 880yds. Then in February 1956, she went to Sydney for the national championships that would decide the training squad for the Melbourne Olympics.
Fraser finished second behind Crapp in the 440yds, however she won the 110yds, out sprinting Crapp over the second lap to break Willy den Ouden’s 20 year old record with a time of 64.5 seconds. She then won the 220yds, beating Crapp again to set a new world mark for both the 200m (2:20.7) and the 220yds (2:21.2). By the time the Olympic trials were over, Fraser and Crapp shared the world record of 62.4 seconds for the 100m.
At the 1956 Olympics, Fraser led an Australian medal sweep of the swimming. Swimming in neighboring lanes, Fraser and Crapp were dead level with 25m to go, swimming stroke for stroke. Both girls finished inside the previous world record and Fraser set a new mark of 62 seconds. She won a second gold in the world record breaking 4x100m freestyle relay with Faith Leech, Sandra Morgan, and Crapp with a time of 4:17.1, and won silver in the 400m freestyle.
Two years later at the 1958 Cardiff British Empire and Commonwealth Games, Fraser won two gold medals, in the 110yds freestyle and the 4x110yds freestyle relay and silver in the 440yds freestyle.
At the 1960 Rome Olympics, Fraser’s main objective was the 100m freestyle. Although still weak from gastric problems suffered after her arrival in Rome, she sailed through her heat and semi-final, and then beat American Chris von Saltza convincingly in 61.2 seconds to win the final. That victory made her the only Australian woman to win gold at those Games, and the third person and first woman in history (after Duke Kahanamoku and Johnny Weissmuller) to win the 100m freestyle at successive Olympics.
Fraser anchored the 4x100m medley relay team (the first time it was included in the Olympic program) to win silver, beaten by the world record breaking American team. In the 4x100m freestyle relay, the Australians again finished second to the Americans.
After these Olympics, Fraser was banned from swimming in international races for two years due to a number of misdemeanors in Rome, including not wearing the national track suit to receive her gold medal and being accused of taking part in an unauthorised swim in Switzerland.
At the 1962 Perth British Empire and Commonwealth Games, Fraser won four gold medals, in the 110yds freestyle, 440yds freestyle, 4x110yds freestyle relay, and the 4x110yds medley relay.
Soon after the 1964 Australian championships, Fraser was involved in a car crash in which her mother was killed. She suffered severe injuries which caused her neck and back to be encased in a steel brace for nine weeks. At the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, she came back to swim inside the minute in her 100m freestyle semi-final, then won the final in a world record time of 59.5 seconds. That swim made her the only person of either sex to win the golden hat trick. She also won silver in the 4x100m freestyle relay and placed fourth in the 400m.
Again, Fraser was no stranger to officialdom at the Tokyo Olympics. She smuggled herself into the Opening Ceremony with other female swimmers despite a ban placed on swimmers competing in the first three days, and then went on to wear a swim suit that was produced by a rival manufacturer. At the end of the Games, Fraser was arrested for stealing a flag from the entrance to the Emperor’s Palace, but after she apologised and the police realised who she was, the charges were dropped and the police gave her the flag as a gift. Despite all of this, Fraser was elected to carry the Australian flag in the closing ceremony.
Upon her arrival back in Australia, the ASU proceeded to suspend Fraser from all forms of competitive swimming for ten years. This was later reduced to four years, however, it meant the end of her Olympic career. In 1965 Fraser retired from swimming,
Between 1955 and 1964, Fraser won 22 Australian individual championships from 110yds to 440yds freestyle as well as the 110yds butterfly.
She was Australian of the Year in 1964 and was made a Member of the British Empire (MBE) in 1967 and an Officer of the Order of Australia (AO) in 1998. In 1964 she was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame at Fort Lauderdale.
Awards, Honours & Achievements
Awarded AC – 11 June 2018