It has been nearly eight years since Australia's swimmers played host at the 1956 Olympic Games in Melbourne and celebrated the fact by giving their guests a sound thrashing. The Olympic pool in Melbourne where the thrashing was meted out does not today stand as an empty reminder of the past. In Australia, pools are for swimming, and the big pool in Melbourne is busier than ever. Knots of attentive mothers huddle in the first rows of the vast auditorium, watching as their children, ages 6 to 19, swim endless hours and countless miles up and down the pool in quest of the form and speed that will win state titles, national titles and, hopefully, eventual Olympic medals. Like ice-skating mothers and horse-show mothers, the swimming mother is a fanatic, an awesome combination of drill sergeant and drama critic.
At about 11:30 in the morning and again toward the end of the afternoon, six or seven days a week, the Olympic pool receives a different sort of visitor. She arrives alone, carrying a well-used traveling bag, and as she walks to the ladies' dressing room she nods and chats with the youngsters awaiting their turn on the starting blocks. She also looks up with complete scorn at the mothers sitting above her. In five minutes she reappears at poolside in a blue-and-white skintight bathing suit over which she has draped a bright-red towel. When she has found a vacant lane, she puts the towel aside and stands at the water's edge, all 149 pounds and 5 feet 8� inches of her. Her name is Dawn Fraser, and she is the greatest woman swimmer in history.
Modern competitive swimming is a demanding, almost ascetic sport in which stars shine at 14 and fade at 18. Dawn Fraser is called Granny by Australian swimmers and officials, for back in the 1956 Olympics, when Australia showed the world how to swim, Dawn Fraser, at 19, was the oldest of the Australian world-beaters. Now, at 26, she is still unbeatable, a lone campaigner out to prove to the world—and to herself—that what a swimmer can do in her teens she can do even better later on.
At the moment nobody is even close to doing better than Dawn. In two Olympic Games and two British Empire Games she has collected an awesome total of nine gold and six silver medals. At present she is the holder of four world freestyle records, at 100 meters, 110 yards, 200 meters and 220 yards. She is the only woman ever to win the 100-meter sprint in two Olympics, and the first and only woman to break 60 seconds at that distance. No girl in the world has come within 1.8 seconds of her amazing world mark of 59.5.
Today Dawn Fraser is in the final stages of training for the Australian nationals, February 27 to March 1 in Sydney, and the next objective is, of course, the Tokyo Olympics this fall. Nobody in his right mind will be betting against Dawn Fraser in Tokyo, and Dawn herself is already thinking about the possibilities of trying for a medal at Mexico City in 1968, when she will be 30 years old. As she sits at poolside brushing back her soaking sandy hair, she sports an almost constant smile. "It wouldn't be impossible, you know, to win a swimming medal at 30," she says. "In the 1956 Olympics a German girl of 31 with three kids won the breaststroke. Thank goodness for me she was a breaststroker, not a freestyler."
Dawn is unmarried and has no particular serious boy friend. She trains because she wants to train, but this does not preclude having fun. She often goes out three or four nights a week, dancing the stomp and the twist, having a Martini before supper and as many as five or six beers at a party (sometimes she prefers a lime soda). In the morning, if she doesn't feel like it, she'll skip swimming. If she does feel like it, she'll hustle off to the Olympic pool, and there, because she can't get proper competition from any of the other girls in Melbourne, she'll spend an hour beating Australia's best junior boys in a series of 55-yard sprints. Dawn's greatness, while obviously the result of natural ability, is, according to her, just as much the result of her own refreshing philosophy on both training and competition. "I probably have a different mental approach to swimming than most people," she says. "I actually enjoy training most of the time. When I don't want to train, I don't. If it comes, it comes, and I don't force myself. Nine years ago, when I started swimming seriously, I did absolutely everything my coach, Harry Gallagher, told me to, but then two years ago I began using my own judgment more and more, and we both feel that this arrangement is better. In other words, our relationship is not that of coach and pupil but more like that of brother and sister."
Dawn Fraser has never suffered the lot of so many young swimmers today who are driven relentlessly by overeager parents. "Many of our girls, like many of yours in the States," Dawn concludes, "start competition at 9 and 10, and when they lose interest at 15 or 16 it's often because they are driven too hard. I've always believed that the desire must come from within, not as the result of being driven. I wouldn't want my parents coming to the pool to watch me and to be prodding me all the time. I should hate that."
At the age of 5 the young Dawn learned to swim in her native Sydney, where her father, Kenneth Fraser, had a poor-paying job as a shipwright. Mr. Fraser had come to Australia with a visiting Scottish soccer team and stayed on to get married and sire eight children. Dawn, the youngest of four daughters, was the last of the eight. "My father was interested in sports but didn't care much about swimming one way or the other, even up to the time he died two years ago," Dawn related recently. "My mother is just a good mother who said to me when I was 14, 'If you want to swim you go get yourself to the top.' "
The top seemed out of the question for Dawn. For many years she swam more for play and pleasure than for any serious purpose. Her parents were poor and often sick. Dawn spent most of her childhood staying home to help with the housework. Her brothers all played football, and it was they, rather than her parents, who urged her to take up swimming seriously. Dawn first came to the attention of Coach Gallagher in Sydney's Drummoyne Pool when she was 14. Three years later, in February of 1956, she had her first world record, when she beat a 20-year-old mark by swimming the 100 meters in 1:04.5. That started an almost endless procession of records in national championships as well as in the Melbourne and Rome Olympics and the Empire Games in Cardiff and Perth.
For all her poise, Dawn Fraser admits to being so nervous and tense at times that she can become as forgetful as a novice. "At a meet in Sydney a few years ago," she recalls, "I was peeling off my gym suit when an official put up his hand in front of me. 'Don't lift that jacket any higher,' he said, 'you've forgotten your bathing suit.' I looked down and sure enough he was right. I had no swim suit on. Another time I was thinking so much about a race that when I got on the starters' block I looked down to see that I still had my socks on."