1889 - 1956

Sarah 'Fanny' Durack: World Champion Australian Swimmer

State Library of New South Wales

On July 12, 1912, Fanny Durack became the first Australian female to win an Olympic Gold Medal for swimming. From 1910-1918 she was considered the world’s greatest female swimmer, followed closely by her good friend and companion, ‘Mina’ Wylie.

Fanny & Mina
Sarah 'Fanny' Durack was born in Sydney on October 27, 1889. She first learnt to swim at Coogee Baths and by 1906, whilst still at school, had won her first State Championship for Breaststroke. Born in 1891, Wilhelmina 'Mina' Wylie was also destined to swim - her father owning Wylie's Baths in Coogee.

In the 1910-11 swimming season, Mina beat Fanny in the 100-yard breaststroke and the 100 and 220-yard Freestyle events at the Australian Swimming Championships, held in Sydney's Rose Bay.

Although close rivals in the pool, Fanny and Mina became close friends - competing against each other for the title of Female World Champion throughout their lives.

1912 Stockholm Olympic Games
Whilst at the top of their game, both Fanny and Mina were sent to Stockholm for the 1912 Olympic Games - the first Games to feature Women's swimming events.

Initially the New South Wales Ladies Swimming Association did not support them competing in Stockholm, but Fanny and Mina were determined to go - even if they had to pay their own travel costs and that of their compulsory chaperones. Fundraising events were held to raise the fares necessary to get them both to the Games.

The swimming component of the Stockholm Olympic Games was held from 6 - 15 July, 1912.

July 11, 1912: A New World Record

It was during her final heat, on July 11, that Fanny Durack set the new World Record for Women's 100m Freestyle.

July 12, 1912: Fanny Durack Wins Gold

The following day, Fanny went on to win the 100m Freestyle Final, becoming the first Australian woman to win Gold at an Olympic swimming event.

Her good friend, Mina Wylie, won Silver in the same race.

The Star of the Show
During their Olympic trip in 1912, Fanny and Mina were invited to swim meets, friendly competitions and 'Swimming Entertainments' across Europe. Wherever they went, Fanny amassed wins, with Mina coming in just behind her in second place.

For the swimming entertainment at The Bath Club in London, on June 21, 1912, Fanny placed first in the Invitation Ladies' Scratch Race and Mina followed her in second place.

Following her celebrated Olympic win, Fanny Durack was further invited to swim in competitions across the world.

Her photograph featured in souvenir swim programmes wherever she went.

Fanny was often the featured star of Sydney's swimming carnivals, drawing large crowds to watch her dash across the pool, faster than anyone had seen before.

"Miss Fanny Durack: Champion Lady Swimmer of the World and Holder of Ladies' World's Records for all distances!"

Swimming clubs around Sydney often rallied to support Fanny and her trips overseas.

The Eastern Suburbs Ladies Swimming club provided a farewell dinner to Fanny and her mother Mary when they left for the USA in 1918.

It was a dinner menu 'fit for a winner'!

This particular autographed menu card was owned by her close companion, Mina Wylie - with Fanny's signature prominently placed in the top left.

The Turn of the Tide

A swimming trip to America in 1918 and 1919 followed Fanny and Mina's success, but did not go exactly as planned. Arriving in America without official sanction, they were initially banned from competing by the Amateur Swimming Union of Australia.

Their next challenge: the "American Crawl". The American swimmers had an entirely different swimming style that Fanny and Mina had to learn to have any chance of success there.

In the New York Swim Meet of 1919, Fanny and Mina competed against American swimmer Ethelda Bleibtrey - who went on to win Gold in three Women's Freestyle events at the 1920 Antwerp Olympic Games.

Fanny remained popular and successful back home, appearing in local carnivals until 1920, when she underwent an appendectomy one week before leaving for the Antwerp Olympics, forcing her to withdraw from competition.

A Firm Friendship
Fanny and Mina remained friends throughout their lives, despite their competition with each other in their younger years. From 1928 to 1970, Mina Wylie taught swimming at Presbyterian Ladies’ College, Pymble, and in 1975 she was elected to the International Swimming Hall of Fame. She lived in Coogee, the site of Wylie's Baths, her entire life.

Fanny Durack retired from competitive swimming in January 1921 when she married horse trainer Bernard Martin Gately. However, she remained committed to the sport her entire life, coaching young children's swimming.

She was made a life member of the New South Wales Women's Amateur Swimming Association in 1945, having served as a member of its Executive.

Fanny Durack continued to be celebrated after her retirement and deservedly so. Between 1912 and 1918, she had broken 12 World Records - including swims of 100 yards (91 m) in 1 minute 6 seconds, 100 metres in 1 minute 16.2 seconds, and 1 mile (1.6 km) in 26 minutes 8 seconds.

Fanny died in 1956 and was buried in Waverley cemetery, overlooking the sea. Her success in the pool did much to promote the cause of women's swimming, and women's sport in general, in Australia.

The Fanny Durack Aquatic Centre, in Petersham, Sydney, is named in her honour.

Credits: Story

Thank you to the National Library of Australia for the use of the image of Fanny Durack's Olympic Gold Medal

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