Teenage talent Shane sets Gould standard in the pool

Swimming Women

If Mark Spitz was the outstanding male swimmer of these Games, Australia's Shane Gould was the female equivalent. Like him, she had achieved global renown and had posted some remarkable results. But the big difference was age – Spitz was 22 when he competed in Munich; Gould was 15.

Her childhood had also been unusual. Gould's father had worked for Pan American Airlines, and she attended nine different schools in Fiji, Australia and the United States. Only in 1970, when the family settled in Sydney, did she find a regular pattern to life, and to swimming. From there, she blossomed remarkably into one of the most natural swimmers the world has known.

Her preparation for the Olympic Games had been simply astonishing. In the six months between June 1971 and January 1972, Gould had set world records in all five recognised freestyle distances – 100, 200m, 400m 800m and 1500m, a feat that had never been achieved before. As a bonus, she also held the world record for the 200m individual medley.

At the 1972 Games, Gould swam 12 races in just eight days, a gruelling schedule even for seasoned athletes and certainly a huge challenge for a 15-year-old. In those eight days, she swam more than 4000m in competition.

Many thought Gould was being pushed too far, that a girl of her age was bound to buckle under the pressure. Instead, she finished with three gold medals, a silver and a bronze, as well as the distinction that each of her gold medals was won in a world record time. She became known as “Shane Gold”.

What happened after the Olympic Games proved just as remarkable. A year after astounding the world, her goals satisfied and already weary of both her fame and the intense sacrifices of her sport, she retired from swimming aged 16. Gould married two years later and went to live on a farm, but her competitive instincts still bubbled away – she was twice named as Western Australia's state horse-ploughing champion.

She slowly returned to the public eye as a speaker and even made it back into the pool with a comeback to competitive senior swimming. She carried the Olympic Torch at the Opening Ceremony in Sydney 2000.