Unheralded Neall defies odds for medley success

Swimming Women

There was probably no point, other than during the final 20 metres of her race, the 400m individual medley, when Gail Neall really was the favourite to take the gold medal.

An unheralded 17-year-old from Australia, she was a schoolmate of fellow Munich gold medal winning swimmer Shane Gould on the north shore of Sydney.

But there the similarities ended – or so it seemed. Her best time in the individual medley event was way off the pace of the frontrunners, and she had been only the sixth fastest qualifier. She swam the final in lane seven – rarely the home of the eventual winner.

Yet Neall thrived on adversity. She liked nothing more than proving the doubters wrong, ever since she'd been written off as a poor swimmer when she was a little girl. Then, she'd been inspired to win a club race; now it was the prospect of the Olympic title that pushed her to greater heights.

Her problem was that her breaststroke was considered far weaker than her rivals. She had started strongly, holding the lead following two lengths of butterfly in which her closest competitors were the Americans Lynn Vidali and Jennifer Bartz. At the end of the backstroke leg, she was a body length in the lead, but still few considered her the favourite, for next was breaststroke, where her rivals expected to catch her up.

This time, though, inspiration kicked in. Both Bartz and the Canadian Leslie Cliff attacked with determination, but somehow Neall maintained a lead going into the final lap. Cliff attacked again and took the lead at the turn, but then, with 30m to go, Neall drew level and the two swimmers matched each other, stroke for stroke for ten metres. And then, gradually, Neall drew away to win by a full second.

She had won gold, broken the world record, and taken an amazing seven seconds off her own personal best.

It was the only international gold medal of her career. She retired from swimming two years later.