Swimming & Australian Identity

Reflecting Australia’s obsession with sport, the National Portrait Gallery has many diverse portraits of Australian sportspeople. Let’s take a closer look at some of the great swimming superstars from our collection and their stories that have shaped our national identity.

The Golden Girls (2004) by Robin SellickNational Portrait Gallery


For a country surrounded by water, it is not surprising that swimming in Australia has a rich history both as a pastime and as a competitive pursuit. Australia’s obsession with swimming whether it is surfing or body surfing at the beach, cooling off in a river, dam or backyard pool certainly manifests itself at its height in the international competitive 100-metre pool.

Channel (Tums) Cavill (August 24, 1877 - March 1, 1914) is said to have developed Australian crawl stroke, which now known as "freestyle" and used all over the world, for fun, exercise and competition.

Australia’s swimmers hold the most medals for any sport on an international level. As an Olympic sport with 58 swimming gold medals out of our 135 gold medal count across all athletic fields. At the 2018 Commonwealth Games in Brisbane, we topped the medal tally with 28 gold, 21 Silver and 24 bronze totalling 73 medals! 

Annette Kellerman (circa 1907) by H. W. BarnettNational Portrait Gallery

Annette Kellerman pioneered what was considered to be an extremely risqué swimming costume for her time.

Annette Kellerman was a champion swimmer, diving enthusiast, stage and movie performer and the designer of the first one-piece women’s swimwear.

After having rickets as a child, she regained her health and fitness through swimming.

Annette was an enthusiast for healthy living and said that swimming healed her of her illness. She was pronounced by Harvard Professor Dudley Sargent as ‘The perfect specimen of a woman’.

Annette Kellerman smiling (c. 1907 (printed 2003)) by H. Walter BarnettNational Portrait Gallery

Women in the early 20th century were meant to wear a three-piece swimsuit including a petty coat and certainly were not meant to show any skin on their legs.

You can see the join of her stocking to the one-piece men’s suit.

She sewed the stockings on after she was arrested for indecent exposure (of her legs) on an American beach.

Ian Thorpe (2002) by James HoustonNational Portrait Gallery

Ian Thorpe was selected at the age of fourteen for the Australian Olympic team.

He was quickly nicknames ‘Thorpedo’ because he was so fast.

In the 2000 Olympics in Sydney he won three gold and two silver medals.

He used his high public profile to support sick and disadvantaged children as well as indigenous issues and health education.

Thorpe was awarded young Australian of the Year, World Swimmer of the Year four times and an honorary doctorate.

Dawn Fraser (1998 (printed 2001))National Portrait Gallery

Dawn Fraser is one of Australia’s most successful female swimmers.

She won four gold, four silver Olympic medals as well as six gold and a silver Commonwealth Games medals.

Dawn Fraser (1963) by David MooreNational Portrait Gallery

In 1962 she became the first woman to swim 100 meters in less than 10 seconds.

In honour of her achievements she carried the Olympic torch in the opening of the Sydney 2000 Olympics.

Credits: Story

This exhibit was written by:
- Annette Twyman, Learning Facilitator, National Portrait Gallery
- Sally Adair, Learning Facilitator, National Portrait Gallery
- Sally Dawson, Learning Facilitator, National Portrait Gallery
- Kirstin Gunether, Learning Facilitator, National Portrait Gallery
- Emily Casey, Program Coordinator, National Portrait Gallery
- Alana Sivell, Digital Learning Coordinator, National Portrait Gallery
- Johanna McMahon, Art History intern, Australian National University.

This exhibit was edited and produced by Alana Sivell, Digital Learning Coordinator, National Portrait Gallery.

We would like to acknowledge the generous support from all artists and organisations for letting us include these works.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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