Fraser battles back to make swimming history

At the age of 27, Dawn Fraser of Australia was now considered something of a veteran, nicknamed Granny by some of her teammates. Yet if anybody in the swimming world demanded respect, it was her – she had won the 100m freestyle title at the previous two Olympic Games, and was in no mood to relinquish her title.

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There was little doubt she still had the ability. In 1962, she had swum the distance in a world record time of 59.9secs, making Fraser the first woman ever to dip under a minute for the 100m. Indeed, she had set the last nine world records at the distance and had even gone below 59secs a few months before the Games began – a mark that would last into the 1970s.

Just after that superb swim, though, Fraser was badly injured in a car accident that claimed the life of her mother. Fraser had to spend six weeks with her neck in plaster and, although she recovered in time to compete in Tokyo, questions were asked about her ability – or desire – to return from such a tragic setback. A young pretender had also emerged – the 15-year-old American Sharon Strouder.

Fraser cruised through the opening round and then set a benchmark time of 59.9secs in the semi-final. The final itself lived up to expectations – Fraser held the lead at the turn, but Strouder came back to catch her after 70 metres.


Now it became a sprint for the line – and Fraser’s depth of reserve and will-power pushed her on. She came home in 59.5secs to claim gold. Strouder, 0.4secs behind, became the only other female swimmer in history to break the minute barrier.

Fraser had become the first swimmer, either man or woman, to win the same event at three successive Games. She celebrated by cheekily trying to take a flag from the Emperor’s palace. She was stopped – but the Japanese Emperor gave her the flag as a gift instead.

She retired from the sport after the Tokyo Games. Twenty-four years later, she was named Australia’s greatest female athlete. Fraser was elected to the parliament of her region, New South Wales.