If the housewives caring for their kids at Sydney's noisy Ryde Swimming Centre had been less absorbed in the latest gossip one recent Monday afternoon, they might have noticed a 15-year-old girl climb from one of the five outdoor pools, then give a little yawn. This episode took on interest because of the 72-point type the Australian press had been investing in the news that the girl, Shane Gould, had special gifts as a swimmer. SHANE SEEKS IMPOSSIBLE FEAT! the headlines would typically report, and next morning they would chorus: SHANE DOES IT AGAIN! Preoccupied housewives notwithstanding, Shane Gould was hardly lacking for attention.
On this day, as she ascended with a yawn from the pool following her afternoon workout, it was Shane's weary fate to face still another wave of journalists, the immediate group including a couple of the hometown Sydney boys, a reporter-photographer team from the Brisbane Sunday Mail and others from as far away as the U.S. and Switzerland. During her sudden emergence as the world's best woman swimmer, Shane had displayed a composure amounting to nonchalance, but the constant presence of so many newsmen sometimes reached her. "They keep coming, and there's no end to them," she had complained more than once. "They've taken hundreds of pictures, thousands—and they still want more."
Shane's reaction to today's visitors was to go sensibly about her business. It was summer in Australia, a holiday from school, and she and her Ryde Swimming Club teammates were enjoying a day off from the New South Wales championships, a 10-day affair that had begun the previous weekend. As the cameramen trained their lenses on her at poolside, she wrapped her wide shoulders in a towel, then drew herself up to her full 5'7�" so as to commend her damp hair to the sun. The pictures, when seen later, would reveal a leggy adolescent with well-made features under a casque of silver-blonde hair. A careful look would disclose, behind a pouty mouth, braces on the teeth. The photos would be suitable for Qantas ads promoting travel in the antipodes, for it was clear that Shane Gould was on her way to becoming a true, tawny-hued Australian beauty.
Neither was it difficult to imagine why she yawned. In the months leading up to this meet, Shane had equaled or broken all five standard world freestyle records and was now stalking similar records in the 200-and 400-meter individual medleys. She had become the talk of the swimming world, much of the conversation being divisible into three topics. The first had to do with her "two-beat kick," a shallow, almost slow-motion leg action that her coach, Forbes Carlile, was predicting would revolutionize competitive swimming. Another was the likelihood that she would make a shambles of women's swimming at the 1972 Olympics. Finally, there was the question of when she would ever lose another freestyle race, a calamity that had last struck the Australian teen-ager eight months before.
Shane's heroics began in London last April 30 on her first overseas swimming junket. Still six months shy of her 15th birthday, she tied the oldest record in swimming, the 100-meter freestyle clocking of 58.9 set by countrywoman Dawn Fraser in 1964. The next day Shane broke the 200-freestyle record, one she would lower later in the year to 2:05.8 in a race otherwise memorable for a horrendous start that left her still on the block as the other girls hit the water. There followed in orderly sequence world freestyle marks at 400 meters (4:21.2), 800 (8:58.1) and 1,500 (17:00.6). Her swim in the 1,500, which lopped 18.6 seconds off the previous record, would have won the men's event in the Olympics as recently as 1964.
Along with haste in the water, Shane was demonstrating faith in her own destiny, a quality that surfaced as early as November 1970 when she submitted to wearing braces only on the promise they be off by the 1972 Games. Just another Olympic hopeful at the time, she has dutifully accepted her orthodontist appointments ever since, trudging up a narrow stairway above a health-food store and into a cramped waiting room furnished with romance comics titled Love in the Wild and Spy Spell. All the while, her confidence reached new heights. "I feel like I could have gone a 'teenth' faster," she said after every record swim. "I don't think I've begun to swim my best times."
As Australians read of her deeds over their morning chops and eggs, Shane became a national heroine. Her 1,500-meter record, set Dec. 12 in a small interclub meet at Sydney's Birrong Pool, attracted 3,000 spectators, half of whom, having seen what they came for, went home following her swim, passing up later events on the program. Even before Tass and UPI ( Europe) honored Shane as sportswoman of 1971, her parents were spending $5 a week in postage to answer fan mail that arrived at their suburban Sydney home from abroad. The Goulds also felt compelled to get a silent line, Australianese for an unlisted phone number, because of calls from strange young men of the kind who ring up late at night and whisper, "It's Jimes 'ere. A'd like to speak to Shine."
All this excitement had built to a climax the previous Saturday, the opening night of the New South Wales meet, the specific occasion being a bid by Shane to break the 100-meter record she still shared with the retired Dawn Fraser. If she could do so, it would end Dawn's almost unbelievable 16-year hold on the 100, a monopoly that began when she first broke the record in 1956 and continued as she lowered it 10 times more. It would make Shane the first woman to hold every world freestyle record outright since an American named Helene Madison did it in the 1930s.
Before the meet Shane's father had put a sign on her bedroom door at home—THE 588 CLUB—signifying the time (58.8) his daughter needed. Coach Carlile freely predicted she would break the record. Shane, always withdrawn before important races, seemed even more so this time.' I think and rethink a race," she explained later. "Sometimes people start a conversation. I don't want to hurt their feelings, but I don't hear them." As if these powers of concentration did not give her enough of a dreamy quality, Shane had her nose in a book every free minute; she read four novels the week before the 100, classics all, and said of one of them, Wuthering Heights, "It was so full of emotion, I was in a daze."
On the day of the race there were requests, all declined by Carlile, from 10 photographers, each interested in shooting Shane "relaxing at home." That night 5,000 fans, the largest crowd to attend a swim meet in Australia in a decade, overflowed North Sydney pool, the Depression-era facility in which Fraser had set her 58.9. The pool is located at the foot of Harbour Bridge, the arched, steel-girded landmark that dominates Sydney Harbour like some fantastic Erector-set creation, and hundreds of people who had been turned away at the door lined the bridge's walkway to watch the race from a lofty distance. Other Australians looked in on a special nationwide TV hookup.