Celebrating the 96th birthday of Australia's oldest living Olympian
9 August 2017
**This story was written in August 2017. Catherine passed away on 28 March 2018, aged 96.**
AOC: Today, 9 August, we celebrate the 96th birthday of Australia’s oldest living Summer Olympian, Catherine Onslow (née Pym), who competed in Fencing at the Helsinki 1952 Olympic Games.
Catherine Pym was born in Sydney in 1921, just after the end of World War I. She grew up in Burwood, Sydney, and with her younger sister Hillary, and attended, Presbyterian Ladies College Croydon.
“It was the closest private school and during the Depression and we were very lucky to be able to go to a private school,” said Pym in an interview in 2012 with her former school.
During her school years she was involved in many sports, including tennis, swimming and netball. She completed her Leave certificate in 1938, but she was not keen to go to university or the usual pathway of young women in this era.
“I’d had enough of school but the choices for women then weren’t as great as today," Pym said. "You could be a teacher, a nurse or get a clerical job such as working in a bank”.
She chose a different direction after school, undertaking a two-year diploma program that qualified her to be a “Games Mistress” so that she could teach sports in schools. The course was at the Swords Club, then in Rushcutters Bay. Today, the Swords Club is connected to the well known Australian College of Physical Education, now located at Homebush, and its connection is remembered by a sword in the current ACPE logo.
It was at the Swords Club where Pym learnt to fence.
“I’d always been interested in fencing and liked reading about it in historical novels like the Three Musketeers,” said Pym.
“Frank Stuart was the one who really taught me how to fence.“
Over a decade later Stuart would coach Pym in international competition.
During Pym’s life, she has lived, worked and studied overseas for more than 50 years and it started early, just after her graduation from the Swords Club. She took a teaching position at Nga Tawa (Wellington Diocesan School for Girls) in Marton, near Wellington in New Zealand.
In 1942 when the Japanese submarines managed to get into Sydney Harbour during World War II, Pym’s father made her return to Sydney. During the remainder of the war years she taught at PLC Croydon (which had moved to Strathfield during WWII) and also at back at the Swords Club in Rushcutters Bay.
In 1948, Catherine’s family supported her to live in Paris for two years and attained the Maître d’Armes – the highest qualification a fencer can achieve, at the Academie d’Armes. While in Paris, Pym and a few of the students travelled over to watch the London 1948 Olympic Games. Pym found it rather daunting to her as it made her realise that the Australian Fencing Team would have a challenge competing with the Europeans.
“The Europeans had very strong teams as they had lots of local competitions where they could learn the skill and practice. The sport was relatively young in Australia and there were very few competitions where we could get fighting experience,” Pym said.
After studying in Paris, she returned to Sydney where she was selected for the Auckland 1950 Empire Games. Making its debut at the Empire Games, the fencing competition was held in the Auckland Drill Hall on February 7.
While the men contested the Foil, Epee and Sabre, the women only competed in the Foil. There were eight entries and Pym performed well, winning five bouts and losing just two. She defeated team mate Elizabeth Stokes 4-3 in a decisive bout to decide the bronze medal. Pym was thrilled to win a medal - Australia’s first ever in Empire Games competition.
Pym recalles the accommodation in Auckland where there was no athlete village and participants were billeted with local families and Pym was placed with another Australian Fencer and the family only had one spare double bed for the two to share.
Ahead of the Helsinki 1952 Olympic Games, Pym returned to Paris to train and based herself in the Family Hotel.
“I got a simple meal every night – normally a bowl of soup. Prices were very high in Paris after the war and many things were in short supply. I remember often having a hard-boiled egg and a small glass of beer for breakfast because the beer was cheaper than the coffee.”
Pym had to self-fund most of her preparation for the Olympics.
“In 1952, the government paid my airfare not from Sydney to Helsinki, but only from Paris to Helsinki. I got a uniform to wear at the opening and closing ceremonies and a track suit, but that was it. We paid for our own fencing uniforms and our own equipment.”
In Helsinki, men and women were in separate accommodation with a basic opening ceremony, Pym noted.
“The opening ceremony was quite simple compared to the big performances of today. All the teams marched into the field, there were some speeches, the Olympic Flame was lit, the Games were declared open and then hundreds of pigeons were released into the air.”
Pym, captain of the Fencing Team, competed on day seven of competition (July 26) and similar to the Empire Games in 1950, women only contested the Foil. In her round one pool, she won one bout and lost four, being eliminated for competition.
“I didn’t get too far (in the competition). In Europe, there were regular competitions whereas here there weren’t competitions. In comparison, we were inexperienced in competition.”
This would be the end of her Fencing career.
“Sport in those days was for fun”, Pym reflected in recent years. "You never thought of earning money from it. I loved fencing. It was a pastime for relaxation. I had the support of my family. I didn’t do it for the glory.”
After Helsinki she would return to Sydney and settled into working life. Initially she worked as a receptionist for a Macquarie Street eye doctor.
“It was pretty boring, but then my mother saw an advertisement in the newspaper saying that American Express was going an office in Sydney. I applied and got a position.”
Pym had worked for the company in Paris so had some relevant experience. This is where she met her future husband, Alan Onslow, a chartered accountant. They married in Singapore and Catherine accompanied Alan in his work in the Far East, in Singapore, Hong Kong, the Philippines, Japan and Okinawa, and also in Australia.
They decided to settle down a bit and lived in Malaysia and Hong Kong, where their three daughters were born, before Alan joined the World Bank and they spent the next 17 years in Washington D C, with a spell of three years in Kenya.
Catherine and Alan retired to France and England and then back to Australia in 2000 to be near their family. Catherine and Alan now live in Sydney’s northern suburbs.
Thank you to Nicola Onslow, PLC Croydon’s archives, and of course Catherine Onslow for their help in researching this article. Images provided by Nicola Onslow.