They called her 'Granny'. Dawn Fraser feigned offence but could easily laugh off the insolence of her teammates. She saw in her nickname affection rather than disrespect. At 27 years of age, the Australian wasn't exactly knocking on retirement's door, but in pool years, you could say she was entering the Third Age. Once a phenomenon of precocity, she was now wowing the world with her longevity at the top. After all, her great rival, the American Sharon Stouder, had only just celebrated her sixteenth birthday…
When Fraser appeared in lane four of the Yoyogi National Gymnasium in Tokyo on 13 October 1964 for the final of the 100m freestyle, the two-time defending champion over the queen distance of swimming knew that it would take less than a minute to firmly establish herself in the legend of the sport and of Olympism.
No man or woman had ever won three successive Olympic gold medals in the same individual event in any sport, let alone swimming. Before this fresh date with destiny, however, she was not preoccupied with history or records. Rather, her thoughts lay with her deceased mother, who should have been watching her from the stands, and whose wedding ring she now wore in her memory.
From the Clay of Rome to the Ali of Atlanta: Fire and flame
Seven months earlier, Fraser had been with her family in Sydney. She had just flown in from the National Championships and was already focused on the Summer Games at Tokyo. One evening, she attended a fund-raising dinner with her mother, Rose, one of her sisters, and a friend, Wendy Walters. As designated driver, Fraser offered to drop off her sister on the way home. The rest she recounts in her 1965 book, Below the Surface:
"I was driving about 40 miles an hour. I'd been driving for 10 years, and I knew that this was about my limit with my mother on board; she was nervous about speed. We were sweeping around a curve on a highway when I saw what looked like the cabin of a truck dead ahead. At the same moment, Wendy, who was next to me in the front seat, called out, 'Look out, Dawn.' I remember pulling the wheel hard to the right, and I think I must have hit the brakes hard."
Despite her evasive action, the car clipped the truck – whose driver had parked up while he went fishing in the nearby Cook's River – and flipped over. "My recollections of the crash are vague: a gigantic close-up of the cabin in our headlights, a high screech of tires on bitumen, and a terrible crash."
The truth comes out after thirty-seven years
Walters sustained a blow to the face, but nothing too serious. Fraser and her sister lost consciousness but avoided any life-threatening injuries. Waking up as she arrived at hospital, Fraser saw Walters and her sister on beds nearby and heard one of the doctors say "three injured and one DOA" – medical terminology for dead on arrival.
"I can remember looking up and seeing my eldest brother and I said 'Kenny, what does DOA mean?', and he said, 'Don't worry about it yet sis,'" Fraser recounted in 2004. "I said, 'Is mum all right?' He said, 'We'll talk about it later.'"
Fraser's mother died instantly. The Olympic champion learned of her death two days after the accident. Laid low with serious back and neck injuries, Fraser had to wear an uncomfortable metal brace for two months to keep her body immobile. She was unable to attend her mother's funeral. Grief and guilt plunged her into depression.
I kept blaming myself because I had been driving the car. My mother was 68, and I was completely devoted to her; I don't think I really knew how close we were until the accident, and then it was too late.
During her last days in hospital before her discharge, Fraser's siblings repeatedly told her that she was foolish to accept the blame. They were the kind of words that went in one ear and out the other, for she was still processing the news. "Over my last few days in the hospital, I was trying to sort my life out again, trying to adjust to the idea that my mother wasn't there any more. I couldn't believe that it had all happened."
To help her feel better, Fraser's family lied to her, assuring her that her mother, according to the medical examiner, had died of a heart-attack caused by fear of the imminent impact, and not the accident itself. It was not until 2001 that she learned the full truth. Paradoxically, it was almost a relief to be told what she had always known, deep down.
"I did not feel good inside," Fraser writes in her second autobiography What I Leaned Along The Way (2013), "but I know I've wiped away that question mark in my mind. Over the years, I've realized you can beat yourself up at night, lose sleep… but you can't change the past. My parents taught me to accept things the way they were, the rights and the wrongs… and to learn from my mistakes."
Doing it for Donny, her dear brother
It was by no means the first tragedy suffered by Fraser. Four years earlier, her father, a shipwright who had emigrated to Australia from Scotland, died of cancer. But her most painful moment dated back to her childhood. The youngest of eight children, Fraser had four sisters and three brothers. It was the eldest, Donald, to whom she felt closest. In an interview with ABC in 2007, she spoke of the kind and protective nature of the boy she described as her childhood hero.
"He was the sort of boy who would offer to help someone and never expect anything in return. I remember if we did something bad, our father would give us lashings on the backside with his leather belt. Donny would've taken them for me, like he would say, 'No Dad, I was the one smoking on the couch, not Dawn,' and then taken the lashings. He would've never expected anything back."
It was Donny who introduced her to swimming – and then stopped her other football-loving brothers calling her "Dawn the Prawn". She was three years old when her brother took her to the public swimming pool for the first time. "I had asthma," she says. "So I was told to play sports. I chose swimming because my parents didn't have much money. All I needed was a costume and a towel. But deep down I wanted to ride a horse!"
When Donny died of leukaemia, she was 11. Before he passed, he made her promise to devote herself fully to swimming: "Dawnie, train hard, do it for me. You have a gift." Long before swimming in memory of her mother in Tokyo, she had taken the plunge for her dear brother.
Fraser was brought up in an old, semi-detached house opposite an abandoned coal mine in Balmain, which she would later describe as "the bleak, tired suburb fronting the docks in Sydney". It was here where the 13-year-old Fraser was spotted by Harry Gallagher while swimming in the local tidal baths. Gallagher would be an intrinsic part of Fraser's success, the coach to whom she would owe almost everything. Convinced of the potential of this determined, driven yet destructive teenager, he put up with her moods and offered to train her for free.
The taming of the shrew
Gallagher's task was far from straight forward. Not only was this prodigy of the pool allergic to chlorine, she was also a brash, vulgar and headstrong individual who put two fingers up at the world. The happy-go-lucky Fraser was, to coin a phrase, something of a larrikin – the popular Australian term for a boisterous youngster, rowdy but good hearted.
By her own admission, she probably would have gone completely off the rails were it not for swimming. "I was an apprentice delinquent," Fraser admitted. "I stole bikes, broke windows and wagged school, until I stopped going completely when I turned 14." With blue eyes and short, black hair, she was a fervent tomboy who spat and swore "like a wharfie", scaled fences "like a scalded cat", smoked cigarettes, drank beer "like water", and bossed the boys around.
Fraser's relationship with Gallagher was also tumultuous. Constantly rude to the coach bent on nurturing and moulding her talent, the loudmouth local also refused to train with the other girls in her group. "I'm not training in the same lane as those stuck-up b*****s," she told him. But Gallagher had the perfect approach for working with Fraser. While he was a strict disciplinarian, he was also the only person capable of taming her fiery temper and gaining her trust, while letting her be true to herself.
"He understood you as an individual. He didn't try to change anything, but he made you stronger in the water. He never changed my style," Fraser later said. Gallagher is now 96 and Fraser 83. They still speak at least once a week – and she still refers to him as 'Mr Gallagher'.
"Dawn was a horror," he once admitted.
She told me I was a deadbeat, to drop dead, to p*** off, to get lost. She wasn't going to do what I wanted her to do. She had wild aggression. She reminded me of a wild mare in the hills that you had put the lightest lead on to keep her under control. She wanted to do her own thing. If you had to guide her, it had to be very subtly, so she didn't understand that she was being manipulated.
Gallagher said that he used to tell his pupil, "You know, Dawn, no girl has ever done this before, and I don't think you can do it either, but you just might be able to do it." And she would reply, "What do you bloody mean? Of course I can bloody well do it." And did it she did; the whole nine yards – plus another 101.
Dawn of a new era
Fraser's progress was threatened by an 18-month ban from competition as a teenager. She was 14 and competing at a Christmas meet where she blew her opposition away, winning a notional cash prize in the process. It was mere pocket money as opposed to a significant nest egg – but it was nonetheless an infringement of the rigid rules that governed amateur sport, for which she was side-lined for a year and a half. It may have passed unnoticed were it not for Fraser's subsequent narrow victory over an acclaimed up-and-comer called Lorraine Crapp in the 1951 Western Suburbs championships. Crapp's coach lodged a complaint and Fraser took the flack.
Punished for her success, she may have thrown in the towel were it not for Gallagher. She stuck to her training after she left school to work in a dress factory. And when Gallagher was offered a job in Adelaide in 1955, he asked Fraser, now 18, to take a leap of faith and join him there. Her father was against the upheaval, but eventually relented. It was the right call.
In Adelaide, Fraser found the perfect balance between training, working in a department store, and enjoying the surrounding countryside at weekends. She became hugely focused and, that summer, won every South Australian freestyle championship: the 100m, 200m, 400m and 800m. Her hard work had paid off – all because her visionary coach had the foresight to look ahead at the bigger picture. What he saw on the horizon was more than regional meets – but the Olympic Games of 1956, on home soil in Melbourne.
Records tumble in a crazy 1956
On 21 February of that same year, nine months before the Summer Games, Fraser made her entrance onto the world stage. At Sydney, during the Australian Championships, she dominated the 100m freestyle to beat Crapp, the other great hope of Australian swimming and one year her junior. By winning in 1'04"05 Fraser had broken Willy den Ouden's long-standing world record set almost 20 years earlier to the day. Speaking to the press, however, Fraser almost seemed disappointed: "I think I can do much better than that," she said in what came across as a moment of lucidity rather than a flash of arrogance.
With Australia, a nation with a rich aquatic history, experiencing a lull in the mid-1950s, Fraser and Crapp had come along at just the right time to put their country back on the map – just when all eyes were about to fall on Melbourne. As it happened, 1956 would prove to be the craziest year in the history of women's 100m freestyle. Untouchable for two decades, the world record would fall no fewer than on seven occasions over the course of 10 months.
Fraser's record from Sydney would only last 10 days before being broken by Cocky Gastelaars. The Dutch swimmer, like Fraser, went and did it again in April. Then, in August, Fraser took back the initiative. This time, the record lasted for two months. By the time the Melbourne Olympics came along, the holder was Crapp, who had just turned 18. This trio of teenagers set the discipline on fire. But the three-way battle royale soon morphed into a national duel following the boycott of the Games by the Netherlands over the Soviet invasion of Hungary, depriving Gastelaars of a chance to compete Down Under.
The coronation of Melbourne
A gold medal for one of the home girls seemed inevitable and the Fraser-Crapp show exploded into life from the get-go, the world record falling twice in a matter of minutes. The day before the final, a nervous Fraser went to bed early but struggled to fall asleep. When she finally drifted off, she had a nightmare as improbable as it was frightening:
"At the starter's pistol, I wanted to dive but my feet were covered in thick honey and stuck to the starting blocks," she later recounted.
I finally managed to reach the water. But the water wasn't water. It was spaghetti. It was a real struggle to move forward, then I realised that the spaghetti was tied around my feet like rope. So I could only use my arms to move forward. At the turn, of course, I got all tangled up and I couldn't cut through the water. I woke up feeling suffocated.
Thankfully for Fraser, the dream was as bad as it would get. The next day, it was with slight relief than she peered down into the water from the blocks and was greeted not by spaghetti but the usual chlorinated water. It was show time – and watching her compete, for the first time ever, were her parents, up in the stands (although Fraser did not know this until after her triumph).
Australia recorded an historic triple with Fraser and Crapp battling it out for gold and silver, with Faith Leech a distant third. Crapp led at the turn, before 'Our Dawn' – as she would soon affectionately be known by commentators back home – drew level at 75 metres. The two swimmers raced at a dead heat, stroke for stroke, hitting the wall, at least to the human eye, simultaneously. Confirmation of Fraser's win came through the tannoy, which announced that the 19-year-old had won in a time of 1'02"00 – another world record. This one would stand the test of time: for 15 years, from 1 December 1956 until the end of the 1970s, Fraser was the indisputable champion in the women's 100m freestyle.
A silver medallist in the 400m freestyle (behind Crapp) and a vital cog in the untouchable 4x100m Australian relay team, the kid from Balmain became a national treasure. Nicknamed the 'Golden Girl', she enjoyed star status in the Aussie media of the 1950s.
"After the Melbourne Olympics, I was put on a pedestal, and I found it very uncomfortable to be in the public eye," Fraser says in chapter seven of What I Learned Along The Way. "I had become a household name overnight and had to cope with the attention as best I could."
Three years later, at the National Championships, Fraser bounced back from a bout of hepatitis and a 6kg weight loss to break four world records within two days – including one in the butterfly, which Gallagher had suggested she enter on a whim. "You have just seen the greatest performance of any woman athlete, in any sport, the world has yet known," the president of the Australian Swimming Union told the crowd. Fraser was in the right lane for super-stardom.
Big enough to know when to go to bed
Much loved by the Australian public, Fraser nevertheless copped a bit of flack when the dark side of her personality occasionally surfaced. For all her success, she retained the uncompromising independence honed from her adolescence. She had both character and a thick skin – for better or worse. Her reluctance to kowtow to any form of authority manifested itself during the Rome Olympics in 1960, where she celebrated another 100m freestyle gold medal well into the early hours, forgetting her obligations in the 4x100m medley heats, where she had been selected to swim the butterfly leg.
"The coaches absolutely wanted me to go to bed at 9.30pm," she later said. "But I was 23 years old, I wasn't a child any more, but an adult capable of making her own decisions. I was old enough to know what time I should go to bed."
Her refusal to line up in the first round of the relay "embarrassed the whole team," according to manager Roger Pegram in his annual report to the Australian Swimming Union. It was, however, more nuanced than that. Following her Nationals success in the butterfly, Fraser had suffered agonizing stomach cramps whenever she attempted the stroke – so much so that a doctor recommended she drop the event from her agenda. Although she had already qualified to race the butterfly for Rome, Fraser had told Pegram she would skip it so as not to jeopardise her 100m freestyle chances.
But Fraser's antics in Rome drove a wedge between her and her fellow 'Water Babes'. After celebrating her gold medal with a trademark all-night bender - Fraser's love of beer was well publicised - she had an argument with her teammates which allegedly culminated in her walloping one with a pillow in the face. After this, the entire team refused to speak to her for the rest of the Games – and the feeling was mutual.
Breaking the minute barrier
It was a shame that this overshadowed the Rome Games, because once Fraser was in the water, she was poetry in motion. Nothing and no one could stem her domination, which after Melbourne had hit unprecedented heights. At Rome, she became the first woman to retain an Olympic swimming title, winning the 100m freestyle in a time of 1'01"20. Two years later, in October 1962, Fraser wrote a new page in the history of swimming by breaking the mythical minute barrier – an unprecedented feat for a woman. Fraser returned home to a hero's welcome – and was even invited by Queen Elizabeth II for lunch on the royal yacht, Britannia.
On 29 February 1964, Fraser broke the world record for the eleventh and final time in 58"90. But just 10 days after she set a landmark time which would not be bettered until eight years after she retired, tragedy struck once again. The losses of both her brother and father to terminal illnesses was replaced by the guilt and anger Fraser felt when her mother died in a car crash which, in her eyes, she had caused.
Her parents had been unable to make the trip to Rome in 1960 because it had been too far and too expensive for the working-class family to fund. After her father's death, she had promised herself that she would take her mother with her to Tokyo. She started saving up over many months – and the good people of Balmain also started running raffles to raise money to pay for her mother's airfare, accommodation, food and travelling expenses. "That money went to charity after my mother passed," she later said. But for Fraser herself, the Tokyo Games risked becoming insignificant, even absurd, in the face of the pain, loss and suffering she felt.
Tokyo triple caps legendary status
On top of her depressive streak, the two-time Olympic 100m champion had to cope with the physical fall-out of the accident. If Fraser the person would suffer no lasting side-effects, Fraser the swimmer found herself severely burdened just seven months away from the Games. She was forced to spend six weeks with a plaster neck brace. Once liberated, she could resume training but with serious limitations.
"The only thing that was really worrying me was my doctor said I wasn't allowed to dive unless I was diving for my race," she said. "In all my training I pushed off the wall. But I never lost my diving start, I always had a good diving start." The heats in Tokyo was the first time she had dived into the water after the accident and coming out of the neck brace.
Juggling her own limitations with the rise of the new generation, Fraser touched down in Japan in a somewhat precarious state. Many doubted her ability to pull off an unprecedented hat-trick. This was reflected in the status of Sharon Stouder – an inexperienced yet fearless 16-year-old from the USA – as the overwhelming favourite. This young American would push Fraser to perform beyond her capabilities. But after two races, 'Granny' had set the record straight: winning her heat in 1'00"60, Fraser then topped her semi-final in a time of 59"90 to break her own Olympic record. Put into context, Stouder's winning time in the second semi-final was 1.5 seconds adrift.
The final saw both swimmers complete the turn neck and neck. Three-quarters into the race, Fraser seemed beaten. But with one last surge, she accelerated and just managed to edge her opponent in a time of 59"50. She needed that performance, for Stouder became only the second female swimmer after the previously peerless Fraser to break the minute barrier. For the third time in a row, the Australian was crowned Olympic 100m freestyle champion. No one – before or since – has accomplished such a feat.
This third coronation was the most beautiful – not least because of its poignancy and Fraser's truncated preparation, to which could be added a virus which she picked up on arrival in Japan. That's without even taking into context the fierce competition from Stouder, who pushed her all the way. Exiting the pool, Fraser's usual beaming smile was accompanied by tears. "Now I can step away calmly," she blurted out, exhaustion tinged with relief.
In four years, I will probably no longer be here. I will hand the baton over to this little one [Stouder]. One day, she will swim in 58"50.
Conflict and rupture
Fraser was right about one thing. In four years, she would not compete at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. Not for any ostensible sporting reasons but for falling foul of the Australian authorities. Again. If Tokyo had confirmed her irrevocable status as a swimming legend, it also saw Fraser's ongoing conflict with the powers that be hit fresh heights, leading to the inevitable rupture.
There was a tense atmosphere from the outset in Japan, with Fraser and her fellow swimmers specifically asked not to attend the opening ceremony since they were due to compete the next day. But Fraser and three of her teammates ignored the request, with the double champion, disguised only in a pair of large sunglasses, rubbing the Australian Olympic Committee's noses in it by marching into the stadium in the front row of Australian athletes.
Bill Slade, who succeeded Pegram as manager of the Australian swimming team, said he was "most disappointed the girls should try to defy an understanding which had been fully accepted before the team left Australia." But Fraser was never one for rules. During the 100m heats, she tested the patience of the selectors once again by wearing a comfortable but unofficial swimsuit (that she had stitched herself) instead of the official brand-new team costume, which she found ill-fitting. It was a slap in the face for the sponsors and the Australian media had a field day.
But her historic gold medal in the 100m freestyle saw her indiscretions brushed under the carpet. So much so that Fraser was chosen to carry the Australian flag at the Olympic closing ceremony on Saturday 24 October. In the meantime, the 27-year-old let her hair down, enjoyed a few beers, and made the most of being in Tokyo by visiting the sites.
Then came the scandal for which she would be forever remembered. It was the night before the ceremony. Australia had just secured their final medal – a bronze in field hockey. Fraser was invited to a party at the Imperial Hotel – an offer she couldn't refuse. After all, she was already staying at the hotel after gaining permission to leave the Olympic Village after the end of her events. After a fun night with much dancing and drinking, things got a little out of hand…
The mystery of the Imperial Palace flag theft
As the party was winding down around 2.30am, barely a dozen hours before the start of the closing ceremony, Fraser went on a nocturnal expedition with Desmond Piper, one of the bronze medal-winning hockey players, and Charlie Morris, the doctor of the Australian delegation. And why not? It was a Friday, the night was still young – and when you're Dawn Fraser, you can't help but let a bit of the larrikin out…
Their mission: to respect the age-old yet slightly tawdry tradition of locating an Olympic flag to pinch and bring back as a souvenir. "After walking for a long time, we came to the middle of a large flutter of flags in front of a large building," she recounts in Below the Surface. "The flagpoles were sprouting like exclamation marks all round us. We chose a fine big Olympic banner with the five circles on it."
Contrary to a tenacious legend (this story is still talked about over half a century on and disentangling the truth from the false is nigh-on impossible), it was not Fraser but allegedly Piper who carried out the illegal capture. A two-fold crime, as it turned out:
We put Des Piper on our shoulders. Both Doc and I hoicked him up there and he got the rope down and got two flags down, and the next thing there were whistles blowing everywhere, the police had seen us, we'd been spotted, and they started to chase us.
If the whole episode seemed like something worthy of some unruly teenagers, it soon got out of hand – and, as always with Fraser, the repercussions were more serious than they may otherwise have been. For the flags stolen by the triple champion and her two acolytes were located on the forecourt of the Imperial Palace. As such, it was right under the nose of the sleeping Emperor Hirohito that this strange heist played out.
'Bring my passport and gold medal – it's under my pillow'
The three fleeing Olympian offenders went their separate ways. In Below the Surface, Fraser explains how she tried to hide in a large shrub, but the police found her and started beating her feet with a baton. She then hopped on a policeman's bike to facilitate her escape before spotting what was the moat around the Palace. In blind panic, she jumped off the wall on the edge of the ornamental garden, not realising in the dark that there was a drop of more than two metres. On landing, she tore some tendons in her ankle. She recounts what happened next:
I sat in the park for a little while, and Doc and Des got caught, and the next minute a couple of policemen found me in the park. I was sitting on the bench, and they asked me what I was doing, and I said I was waiting for some friends, and they said no, and I had the flag underneath my tracksuit.
When she stood up, the flag rope fell out of her pocket and she was caught red-handed before being whisked off to the Marunouchi Police Station. Many years later, she denied the rumour that she had swum the moat in order to steal the flag or flee her chasers, telling The Times in 1991: "There's no way I would have swum that moat [or even] dipped my toe in it. I was terrified of dirty water and that moat was filthy."
By now it was almost four in the morning. Marunouchi's police captain spoke a little English and served as an interpreter. "I am Dawn Fraser, I am here for the Olympic Games," she explained. But no one believed that this was the famous triple Olympic champion and she was not carrying any identification. In the middle of the night, she was forced to call her friend Lee Robinson to vouch for her. He had come to Japan to shoot a documentary on the champion swimmer of Sydney.
The script went a little like this…
FRASER: Lee, you need to come meet me at the Marunouchi police station. It's two blocks from the hotel.
ROBINSON: What have you done?
FRASER: Just bring my dog tags [identification] in my room and gold medal underneath my pillow.
ROBINSON: But what have you done?
FRASER: Look, I'll tell you when you get here.
Once convinced of the identity of the culprit, the police seemed even more dismayed. The captain explained to Fraser that a stealing offence, moreover one in full view of the Imperial Palace, was punishable by jail time. She was ordered to make herself available to the authorities. In the meantime, once she had apologised profusely, she was allowed to go back to her hotel to get some sleep. It had been a long and eventful night. But the nightmare was almost over – for given Fraser's profile, the police decided to let her off with a slap on the wrist.
Hirohito sees the funny side – but not Australia
After a few hours of sleep, Fraser was preparing to leave for the Olympic stadium. She was in her room with Robinson and Morris, who was strapping up her injured ankle, when there came a knock on the door. She recounted what happened next to ABC in the 2007 documentary, Dawn Fraser Still Kicking: "Lee got up and opened the door; it was the lieutenant of police. And I looked at him, and I thought 'What have I done?' And he came in with a couple more policemen and they had a big box of flowers, and he put it on the bed and he's saying, 'Open, open,' in his broken Japanese-Australian, and I was opening it up and it was full of lovely flowers, but underneath was the flag." A note attached read: "With compliments of the Police."
According to legend, once Hirohito had been informed of the case, the emperor was so amused that he expressly requested that the Olympic flag be offered to Fraser as a gift. During the closing ceremony, Fraser led the Australian team as if nothing had happened. Although those with a sharp eye would have wondered why the record-breaking swimmer limped and grimaced with every step. The case ended up all over the papers and, despite the absence of any legal or even diplomatic ramifications, the Australian authorities would make a big deal about it – just as they did regarding the earlier misdemeanour.
On 2 May 1965, four Olympic swimmers received suspensions that were unprecedented in their severity. Linda McGill was banned from all competition for four years; Nanette Duncan and Marlene Dayman for three years. Aged 19, 17 and 15 respectively, they took the news badly, with Duncan famously breaking down in tears on Australian television. Their crime? To have followed in the footsteps of Fraser by attending the opening ceremony, contrary to their agreement.
As for Fraser, she was suspended for an entire decade. The length of the ban reflected her refusal to wear the official team kit and, above all, the theft of the flag. This despite the letter notifying her of the sanction not actually containing a single mention of the Imperial Palace episode. Fraser accepted the punishment but claimed she had been singled out because of her background and long-standing skirmishes with the authorities.
Many years later, Fraser told ABC that the flag was bought at a charity auction for $75,000 although it was later returned to Fraser's daughter on the grounds that it had cost her mother her career in swimming. For it really did bring the curtain down on the career of the 27-year-old – a career that yielded eight Olympic medals, including four gold medals. "Without that, I would probably have continued for a year or two," she said.
To Fraser, the ban was confirmation of the condemnation of her working-class social origins by an elite sporting establishment: the poor girl from the run-down suburb of Balmain was supposed to count her lucky stars, toe the line, and show eternal gratitude to all forms of authority rather than embarrass them on the world stage. Although the ban was lifted a few months prior to the Mexico Olympics, Fraser did not feel she had enough time to come out of retirement and prepare sufficiently to push for a fourth consecutive title. Her career was over.
Once a larrikin…
At the time of the judgement, Fraser was enjoying her honeymoon with her new husband, Gary Ware, whom she had met just before the Tokyo Olympics. With him she would have a daughter, who she called Dawn-Lorraine in tribute to her old childhood rival, Lorraine Crapp, to whom she always remained very close. The couple would get divorced four years later. Ware, a bookie from Townsville, had a gambling addiction and a violent streak. He returned drunk one evening and grabbed her by the throat. She grabbed a knife and warned him: "If you don't go now, I will kill you. I'll go to jail if I have to." Ware duly left.
It was not until 2014 that Fraser revealed this dramatic aspect of her private life during a show on Fox Sports Australia, as if she wished to shed all the shadows of the past after the truth about how her mother died had come out in the open.
In retirement, Fraser took on much charity work. She became a publican in Balmain and co-managed a cheese shop, while taking up swimming coaching. A woman with a thousand lives and faces, Fraser would also enter politics in the eighties to become an elected member of the Parliament of New South Wales. She would publicly declare her bisexuality in the seventies. She would speak openly about her bouts of depression that plagued her despite the trademark smile she always wore whenever in close proximity to a swimming pool. Her life would become the subject of many works of fiction and has, to the day, resonated with a huge chunk of the population in her native Australia.
Outspoken about her opposition to immigration, Fraser has expressed an interest to join the far-right One Nation Party. In 2015 she said of Australian tennis players Nick Kyrios and Bernard Tomic: "If they don't like it, go back to where their fathers or their parents came from". This led to her being denounced as a "racist" by Kyrios and resulted in her making a grovelling apology to the press. But despite numerous scandals, nothing has seemed to damage Fraser's image.
She was awarded an MBE in 1967 and appointed Officer of the Order of Australia (AO) in 1998, the year she was voted Australia's greatest athlete in history. A year later, the International Olympic Committee named her the World's Greatest Living Female Water Sports Champion. At the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, she carried the Olympic Torch at the stadium before lighting the Olympic Flame. Just two years ago, in the Queen's Birthday Honours, she was advanced to a Companion of the Order of Australia (AC).
Fraser remains 'Our Dawn' to those who remember the exploits of the original 'three-peater' of the Olympic pool. Only two other swimmers in Olympic history – Krisztina Egerszegi of Hungary (200m backstroke) and Michael Phelps of the USA (200m butterfly and 200m individual medley) – have won individual medals for the same event at three successive Olympics. Phelps would go on to post a unique quadruple in the medley at Rio – but long before the 'Flying Fish' came 'Dawn the Prawn'.
Hers was a triumph well ahead of its time – a truly remarkable feat accomplished in an era when swimmers did not wear goggles and where cotton swimsuits weighed over four kilograms when wet. Fraser remains, first and foremost, the cheeky, uncompromising, beer-swilling, rough-hewn iconoclastic loudmouth, the 'Larrikin' from Balmain who, from Melbourne to Tokyo via Rome, built up an image of a unique champion of her kind and an independent woman. In both categories, her accomplishments and faults came to a head, her public triumphs interspersed by private wounds.
Translated by Felix Lowe
The Essential Olympic Stories: Bob Beamon’s leap of the century
The Essential Olympic Stories: Bob Beamon’s leap of the century