Cathy Ferguson: The 16-year-old who triumphed in a field of six world record holders


In October 1964, Tokyo hosted their first Olympic Games. To celebrate, Tokyo 2020 will bring you some of the most incredible and historic moments that took place 56 years ago. In the latest part of the series, we take a look at Cathy Ferguson who won gold in an ultra-competitive field at her first and only Games.

The background

Cathy Ferguson was a prodigy - the type of athlete who wasted no time in achieving Olympic glory.

Born in 1948, Ferguson was only 16 when she travelled to the Olympic Games Tokyo 1964.

Despite her age, she was seen as a legitimate gold medal contender - although to win it she would need to beat another 16-year-old, France’s Christine ‘Kiki’ Caron, who had broken the 100m backstroke world record earlier that year.

Though Ferguson was the 200m backstroke world record holder, she wasn't a favourite for gold in the 100m event and was considered the underdog.

Even before the final had taken place, a world record was set in three of the four heats. The first by Ferguson’s roommate, Ginny Duenkel of the USA who swam 1:08.9. Ferguson herself beat that mark with 1:08.8 before Caron set a time of 1:08.5 in her heat.

The final was set to be an explosive one - particularly as three other swimmers in the field were also world record holders.

The moment

On 14 October, it was difficult to think of anything other than a new world record being set. The eight lanes of the pool were filled with the best backstroke swimmers in the world.

The first half of the race was a tight affair, but after the turn, three women led the race. Ferguson was only a couple of centimetres ahead of Caron, who was closely followed by Duenkel.

They were in a battle for gold.

At the end, Ferguson touched the wall first followed by Caron and Duenkel.

As expected, a new world record of 1:07.7 was set - the first time in history that a female swimmer had clocked a sub 1:08 time in the 100m backstroke.

Start of the women's 100m backstroke with winner Cathy Ferguson (USA) in lane 5 and Christine Caron (France) in lane 4 who came second  (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)
Start of the women's 100m backstroke with winner Cathy Ferguson (USA) in lane 5 and Christine Caron (France) in lane 4 who came second (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

What happened next

After the final, Ferguson attributed her win to a particular racing skill she had been working on.

"I was the only one out of eight of us who never looked for the wall. I really knew how to turn and that turn in sprinting - because you only have one of them - that has to be executed very quickly," she recalled.

Along with her 100m backstroke gold medal, Ferguson claimed gold in the 4x100m medley relay.

Prior to Mexico 1968, Ferguson retired at just 19-years-old after getting married. She had won two Olympic gold medals and 15 national titles.

She went on to work as a coach, including for the Los Caballeros Swim Team in Fountain Valley, California. As she said in an article when coaching Los Cab, she brought her own special teaching methods to her swimming lessons.

“As I look back, I can safely say that the most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win, but to take part."

"Just as the most important thing in life is not the triumphs but the struggles. Teach your kids the process and we will have wonderful champions.”