Australia and Olympic Swimming
The first Australian Olympic swimmer was Freddy Lane in Paris 1900. Swimming in the River Seine, Lane won the 200 metres freestyle and the obstacle race over the same distance. The next gold medals came in Stockholm 1912 when Sarah “Fanny” Durack and Wilhelmina “Mina” Wylie finished first and second in the inaugural women’s swimming race, the 100m freestyle. The Australasian team comprising Australians Cecil Healy, Harold Hardwick and Leslie Boardman and New Zealander Malcolm Champion won the men’s 4 x 200m freestyle relay.
In Paris 1924 Andrew “Boy” Charlton shattered the world record on the way to becoming the first of a long line of Australians to win the 1500m freestyle. Eight years later, Clare Dennis became the first Australian to win a medal in a non-freestyle swimming event when she won the women’s 200m breaststroke in Los Angeles 1932. The next gold medal came twenty years later in Helsinki when John Davies won the 200m breaststroke.
Melbourne 1956 saw Australia become the world’s top swimming nation by winning eight gold medals, including every freestyle event. The men’s winners were Jon Henricks (100m), Murray Rose (400m and 1500m) and the men’s 4 x 200m relay team of Henricks, Rose, John Devitt and Kevin O’Halloran. In the women’s events, Dawn Fraser won the 100m, Lorraine Crapp won the 400m and the team of Fraser, Crapp, Faith Leech and Sandra Morgan won the 4 x 100m relay. David Theile won the first of his two 100m backstroke gold medals. In Rome 1960 Fraser, Theile and Rose, in the 400m, repeated their Melbourne victories. John Devitt won the 100m freestyle and Jon Konrads the 1500m freestyle.
Dawn Fraser won the women's 100m freestyle for an unprecedented third time in Tokyo 1964 and Ian O’Brien (200m breaststroke), Kevin Berry (200m butterfly) and Robert Windle (1500m freestyle) also returned with gold medals.
The rarefied atmosphere in Mexico City 1968 didn’t stop Michael Wenden taking on and beating the powerful Americans in the 100m and 200m freestyle. Lyn McClements was also a winner, in the women’s 100m butterfly.
In Munich 1972, Shane Gould dominated with medals in five individual events. Gould won the 200m and 400m freestyle and the 200m individual medley, took silver in the 800m and bronze in the 100m freestyle. Other winners in Munich were Gail Neall in the women’s 400m individual medley and Beverley Whitfield in the women’s 200m breaststroke. Brad Cooper won the men’s 400m freestyle after the original winner, Rick DeMont of the United States, was disqualified for taking a prohibited substance in his asthma medication.
Michelle Ford beat the powerful East German women to win the 800m freestyle in Moscow 1980. The men’s 4 x 100m medley team of Mark Kerry, Peter Evans, Mark Tonelli and Neil Brooks also won gold, gold, gold! "Lucky lane 6" saw Jon Sieben win the 200m butterfly in Los Angeles 1984 and Duncan Armstrong do likewise in the 200m freestyle in Seoul 1988.
Kieren Perkins won the 1500m in Barcelona 1992 and Atlanta 1996. In finishing first in the 200m butterfly in Atlanta, Susie O’Neill became the first Australian woman since Michelle Ford to win an Olympic swimming title.
Sydney 2000 saw Australia return to the top echelon of Olympic swimming nations when five gold medals were won. Individual winners were Ian Thorpe (400m freestyle), Grant Hackett (1500m freestyle) and Susie O’Neill (200m freestyle). Relay titles came in the men’s 4 x 200m freestyle with Thorpe, Michael Klim, William Kirby and Todd Pearson and the men’s 4 x 100m freestyle with Thorpe, Klim, Chris Fydler and Ashley Callus.
Australian women dominated as a world swimming power in Athens 2004 with Jodie Henry winning the 100m freestyle and Petria Thomas the 100m butterfly together with relay wins in the 4 x 100m freestyle (Alice Mills, Libby Lenton, Thomas, Henry) and the 4 x 100m medley (Giaan Rooney, Leisel Jones, Thomas, Henry). In the men’s events, Ian Thorpe won the 200m and 400m freestyle titles to become Australia's greatest Olympic gold medal-winner with five, and Grant Hackett repeated his Sydney win in the 1500m. Overall Australia won 15 swimming medals (7 gold, 5 silver, 3 bronze).
Australia was again a dominant force in Beijing, taking a host of medals in the iconic 'Water Cube' venue. Stephanie Rice was one of the stars, taking three gold medals in the two individual medley events and the women's 4 x 200m freestyle (alongside Linda MacKenzie, Kylie Palmer and Bronte Barratt). The women also claimed gold in the 4 x 100m medley relay in a new world record (Emily Seebohm, Jess Schipper, Libby Trickett, Leisel Jones). Jones then took her total Olympic medal haul to eight, winning two gold and one silver with Trickett and Schipper also adding to their swags of medals. In the men's events there were no gold medals but some hard fought silvers went to Grant Hackett in the 1500m freestyle, Eamon Sullivan in the 100m freestyle, Brenton Rickard in the 200m breaststroke and the 4 x 100m medley relay team.
Australia’s gold in the pool at the London 2012 Games came from the women’s 4x100m freestyle relay team. Alicia Coutts, Cate Campbell, Brittany Elmslie and Melanie Schlanger raced the final on the opening night of competition in London.
Coutts and the Australians also won silver in the 4x100m medley and 4x200m freestyle relays, with the men’s 4x100m medley relay claiming bronze. Coutts was the star of the pool also winning silver in the 200m individual medley and bronze in the 100m butterfly. Australia’s other individual medallists in swimming were Christian Sprenger (silver - 100m breaststroke), James Magnussen (silver - 100m freestyle), Emily Seebohm (silver - 100m backstroke) and Bronte Barratt (bronze - 200m freestyle) to take the medal tally at the pool to 10 (1 gold, 6 silver, 3 bronze).
Swimming has featured in every edition of the Games since 1896. Early Olympic events were conducted in freestyle (crawl) or breaststroke. Backstroke was added as of 1904. In the 1940s, breaststrokers discovered they could go much faster by bringing both arms overhead together. This was soon banned in the breaststroke, but became the butterfly stroke, which is now the fourth stroke used in competitive swimming.
Men and women now compete in 17 events each, involving four different strokes across a range of distances. Freestyle races cover 50m, 100m, 200m, 400m, 800m (women only), 1500m (men only) and 10km. The butterfly, backstroke and breaststroke races each cover 100m and 200m. All four strokes are used in the 200m and 400m individual medley events. The 4 x 100m freestyle, 4 x 200m freestyle and 4 x 100m medley relays complete the program.
Each race has a maximum of eight swimmers. Preliminary heats in the 50m, 100m and 200m lead to semi-finals and finals based on the fastest times. In relays and individual events of 400m or more, the eight fastest finishers in the preliminaries advance directly to the finals.