Australia Didn’t Want To Send Her to the Olympics. So She Raised Her Own Funds and Won the Gold Medal

Australia may have been one of the first countries to grant women the right to vote, but that doesn’t mean that women had full equality. Take Sarah ‘Fanny’ Durack, for example. She showed extraordinary swimming talent from a young age, and yet, leading up to the Stockholm Olympics in 1912 (the first Olympics in which women were allowed to partake), Durack was told by the Australian officials: you’re not going, because you’re a woman.

Fanny Durack was born in Sydney in 1889 and won her first swimming competition in 1906, at the age of 17. Although she was an outstanding swimmer, the Australian National Swimming Association banned women from partaking in competitions in which men were competing, for modesty reasons. Despite these limitations, she continued to compete, and quickly became an Australian swimming star.

In 1912, leading up to the Stockholm Olympics, the International Olympic Committee announced the addition of a new event: a 100-metre freestyle for women, the first swimming event for women.

Durack and her biggest competition, Mina Wylie, also from the Sydney swimming club, saw themselves as natural candidates to represent their country in the Olympics. They were both the best swimmers in Australia at the time, and they would compete against each other for first and second places in every event. 

Unfortunately, the Australian Swimming Association didn’t see things the same way. Not only did they announce that they wouldn’t sponsor their participation – the women were prohibited from participating, because they were women, and women competing against men was immodest. 

The ban that was imposed on them, and prohibited them from representing Australia in the Olympics, caused a public outcry. One newspaper wrote:

if there is any athlete in Australasia who should go to the great contests, it is this young Sydney swimmer,’ and, listing her constellation of 56 medals and 100 trophies, noted, ‘If this formidable array is not a record that Australia should be proud of in one of her daughters, then there is no such thing as national pride

Fanny Durack 2
Fanny Durack

As part of the public outrage, a public campaign was started (before Headstart was even invented!) to raised money to send Durack and Wylie to Stockholm – whether the National Swimming Association liked it or not. The message was: if they didn’t want to pay to send women to the Olympics, we don’t need them, we can do it without them, as long as we get a medal.

The money was raised quickly, and the National Swimming Association wasn’t left with any choice but to cancel the ban.

Fanny Durack Mina Wylie 1912
Durack and Wylie at the Stockholm Olympics

The public outcry only made Durack arrive at the Olympics even more determined. Durack didn’t just win the gold medal, she also set a new world record – and beat her runner-up by three whole seconds. Coincidentally, or not, her runner-up was her Australian competition, Wylie. It turned out that despite the fact that Australia initially didn’t want to send women to the Olympics, it came out of the events with a gold and silver medal. All in all, Australia returned from the Olympics with 7 medals. With the exception of one tennis medal, they were all from swimming events. 

Durack kept her position at the top of the international swimming charts, even after the Olympics. She set 12 world records between 1912 and 1918. The Australian record that she set during those years was 52 seconds faster than the men’s record at the time.

In 1920, shortly before the Antwerp Olympics, she underwent a surgery to remove her appendix. While recovering from the surgery, she became ill with typhus and pneumonia (which wasn’t caused by Coronavirus). She didn’t have any choice but to cancel her participation in the Antwerp Olympics, which prevented her from winning any additional Olympic medals. She retired from competitive swimming a year later. 

After she retired, she became a swimming coach, and died of cancer in 1956. Over the years, she was inducted into the Swimming Hall of Fame. In 2000, the Olympics came to Sydney, and one of the streets in the city’s Olympic Park was named Sarah Durack Avenue, in her honor. Not bad for someone Australia initially didn’t want to be represented in the Olympics by. 

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