Many of Sydney’s municipal swimming pools and ocean baths are named for famous swimmers who smashed world records in Australia and overseas. Think of the Andrew (Boy) Charlton Pool in Woolloomooloo, the Dawn Fraser Baths in Balmain, the Annette Kellerman Aquatic Centre in Enmore, or the Fanny Durack Aquatic Centre in Petersham.
Fanny Durack was born in Sydney in 1889 to working class Irish parents; her father was the publican at the Cheshire Cheese Hotel on Elizabeth Street (today the home of Harry’s Singapore Chilli Crab). She got into swimming from a young age, competing in the 100 yard event at the NSW Ladies Championships when she was 11, which was won by future bathing belle Annette Kellerman.
Durack trained at the Coogee Baths with her best friend Mina Wylie. Mina’s father was the trainer for the both of them, and they became pioneers of the new ‘Australian Crawl’ swimming stroke. But they both came to popular attention in 1912, with the scandal surrounding their attendance of the Olympic Games in Stockholm, which put them on a collision course with the first wave feminists, chief among them Rose Scott.
The first modern Olympics Games was held in 1896, but the organiser Baron Pierre de Courbertin was an opponent of the participation of women in sport. This also meant that he believed that women should not compete in the Olympics.
He believed that ‘…this feminine semi-Olympiad is impractical, uninteresting, ungainly, and, I do not hesitate to add, improper. It is not in keeping with my concept of the Olympic Games … the solemn and periodic exaltation of male athleticism, based on internationalism, by means of fairness, in an artistic setting, with the applause of women as a reward.’
By 1912, the tide had changed against this view, and some events were open to women, including swimming. Durack was eligible to compete, having beaten a number of domestic records, but when the Australian team was announced, she was not part of it.
The decision to refuse women on the Australian Olympic team was supported by Rose Scott and other prominent feminists at the time. They were opposed to the participation of women in competitive sport where men were present, either competing (in separate races) or as spectators.
According to Scott, it was ‘disgusting that men should be allowed to attend. We cannot have too much modesty, refinement or delicacy in the relations between men and women…this new decision will have a very vulgar effect on the girls, and the community generally.’
But not everyone agreed. A vigorous fund-raising campaign was led by the wife of entertainment entrepreneur Hugh ‘Huge Deal’ McIntosh to send Fanny Durack and Mina Wiley to Stockholm. They set sail for Europe in April 1912. Once in Stockholm, Durack won the 100 metre freestyle event, becoming the first Australian woman to win a gold medal for swimming at the Olympics. Wylie took out the silver in the same competition.
Durack pursued a professional swimming career until 1921, during which time she toured extensively in America and Europe with Mina While. She spent most of her life after the end of her competitive swimming career ended living in the Sydney suburb of Stanmore. The Fanny Durack Aquatic Centre in Petersham is named after her.