First Female Olympic Gold Medalist in Swimming

Hello swimming enthusiasts!


Happy Thanksgiving! Today I am back to feature Sarah (Fanny) Durack, the first woman ever to win a gold medal in swimming. Durack was born in 1889 in Sydney, Australia. She learned to swim at an early age in the Coogee Baths, an ocean tidal pool in Sydney’s eastern suburbs. In fact, the father of one of her good friends, Wilhelmina Wylie, owned the Baths, and he pushed the girls to train alongside the best male swimmers at the time.


When she was only eleven, Durack competed in the 100 yard breaststroke at the New South Wales Ladies Championships. In fact, breaststroke was the only style that women were allowed to compete in at the time. At the age of seventeen, Durack won her first State title. Although she got last place in the race (the older and already well-established Annette Kellerman won–you can read about her in one of my earlier blog posts!), she did not get discouraged, and, over the next few years, she became the best female swimmer in Australia.


Durack developed what is now known as the Australian crawl, a style quite different from the type of freestyle most popular in today’ swimming. Instead of a six-beat kick independent of how the arms are moving, Durack’s Australian crawl consisted of a two-beat kick that was coordinated with the arms. She would kick with one foot and stroke with the opposite arm, and then switch to the other leg and the opposite arm.


Organizations at the time such as the New South Wales Ladies’ Amateur Swimming Association prohibited women from participating in competitions where men were also present. However, Durack and Wylie had such success in the years leading up to the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm that the public encouraged her to compete. This was the first year that an individual swimming event was offered for women, in the 100 meter freestyle. Durack swam the event in 1 minute 19.8 seconds, breaking the world record.


Between 1912 and 1918, Durack dominated the female swimming world, breaking twelve world records. Highlights included the 100 yard freestyle (1 minute 6 seconds), the 100 meter freestyle (1 minute 16.2 seconds), and the mile freestyle (26 minutes 8 seconds).


This Thanksgiving, I am thankful for Fanny Durack’s hard work and determination to establish the prominence of women in swimming.



Mina Wylie left, Fanny Durack right
Mina Wylie (left) and Fanny Durack (right)