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Had he lived to swim in the 1908 and 1912 Olympics, there is little doubt that Barney Kieran should have won more swimming gold medals than any Olympian before or since. As he never had this chance, he remains a swimming legend.
The story of Barney Kieran is indeed the stuff of which legends are made. Raised in turn-of-the-century Australia on a reformatory ship in Sydney Harbor, Kieran emerged from obscurity in 1904 to become the darling of his countrymen and the most celebrated swimmer on earth. Within a matter of months he set world records at virtually every recognized distance up to a mile. To complete the sweep, he needed only the 220 mark, a feat he accomplished at the 1905 Australian championships. Competing in six events over two days, he won all his races and on Dec. 6 set a world record in the 220. It was to be his last race. That night he collapsed of what was thought to be colic. Doctors later diagnosed appendicitis and operated within the week. Kieran appeared to be making a satisfactory recovery, but he suffered a sudden relapse and died on Dec. 22. He was 19 years old.
Bernard Bede Kieran, known as Barney, was born in North Sydney in 1886. He lost his father at an early age, and his mother, who by then had several younger children to care for, requested help from the Child Welfare Department. Kieran was placed on the Sobraon, a ship that served primarily as a reformatory for delinquents, but also provided lodging and instruction to others in the care of the Child Welfare Department.
While there Kieran received instruction in carpentry and swimming. Hilton Mitchell, a teacher who familiarized him with the trudgen stroke, a forerunner of the modern crawl, was so impressed by his progress that he summoned Walter Bethel, president of the North Sydney Swimming Club, to have a look at him. Equally impressed, Bethel arranged for special coaching from Bob Craig, a former Australian champion.
Kieran's development was so dramatic that at 17 he was entered in the 440 in the New South Wales state championships. That event had belonged to Australian and world champion Dick Cavill, whose father, Frederick, had built the first swimming tanks in the country and developed the "Australian crawl" stroke. Using the trudgen, the unknown Kieran shocked the spectators by maintaining a lead over Cavill well into the final lap. "Only a desperate finish by Cavill, who as a last resort switched to the crawl stroke for extra speed, enabled him to overhaul his youthful rival and win by a touch," said Australia's Daily Mirror in a recent review of Kieran's achievements.
Kieran and Cavill then met in the 880. Dead-even with the champion at the 400-yard mark, the stronger Kieran moved ahead by three body lengths at 500 yards. Eight lengths back as the race drew to a close, Cavill again switched from trudgen to crawl, but Kieran held on, winning by 10 yards and setting his first world record. He had cut a full :20.6 off Cavill's 1902 mark.
Shortly after this triumph, Kieran left the Sobraon and moved into the home of his mentor, Bethel. His success continued. Swimming against his country's best half-milers in a handicap event in March 1905, Kieran spotted some competitors as much as a two-minute lead. He finished a close second, breaking his world record by more than :11.
Having conquered everyone on his own continent, the prodigy set out to meet other challengers. A fund was started to send him to England, where the famed David Billington, holder of the world mile record, ruled swimming. Suffering from ship lag—the trip by sea took several weeks—Kieran lost his first race at a mile with Billington, but he won the next one. His time of 23:16.8 topped Billington's record by 1:40 and stood for the next 16 years.
Shortly after his return from England in November, Kieran entered six events in the December nationals, finally making his assault on the only record he didn't hold, Olympic hero Freddy Lane's 1902 mark of 2:28.6 in the 220.
With five races and five victories behind him, Kieran won the 220 by a remarkable 11 yards, breaking Lane's record by :00.2. A few hours later Kieran collapsed. He returned the next day intending to participate in the meet's final events but, obviously too ill to swim, was taken to the hospital. Fifteen days later he was dead.