1889 - 1956
Sarah 'Fanny' Durack, Australia’s first female Olympic gold medallist, came to prominence when the sport of swimming in Australia was segregated by gender. Not only could male and female swimmers not swim on the same program; females could not be watched in competition by men (even fathers and brothers). Durack was an independent soul, a tomboy and ultimately a rebel. She won her first state title in 1906, while still a schoolgirl, in the only event then available to women, the breaststroke. She moved to the trudgen, and later the crawl. Early in 1912, the year of the Stockholm Olympics, she set world records in the 100 yards and 220 yards freestyle, with her consistent rival, Sydney-based Mina Wylie, close behind in both events. This led to public demands that they be included in the team for Stockholm. After huge debate the rules were reversed to allow female swimmers to compete among men; but the Amateur Swimming Union insisted that the girls could join Australia’s team only if someone else paid their fares.
After a successful public appeal for funds, the pair sailed for the Games. Durack set a world record in her heat of the 100m freestyle, and went on to win the final, with Wylie second. It was Australia’s only individual gold at those Olympics. Durack and Wylie both made individual US tours, both of which brought Durack into bitter conflict with authority. By temperament and talent, she had much in common with her later successor, Dawn Fraser.
Harry Gordon, AOC historian