Being True to You - Dawn Fraser

Dawn Fraser_blog

Shaking off the nerves on the starting blocks while impatiently awaiting the crack of the starter’s pistol and visualizing her victorious race plan were things Dawn Fraser mastered like few other athletes.  Her ability to strive with single minded focus on being “the best swimmer in the world” meant Dawn never gave up despite the many obstacles life put in her path.  Each time - against the odds - she recovered, remained determined, and came back working even harder to achieve the level of excellence necessary to put herself in a winning position.

From a very young age, Dawn Fraser loved to swim.  And swim she did!  Like no other before her or since.  Born in 1937 as the youngest of eight children growing up in working-class Balmain in Sydney, money was scarce.  Swimming was fun, cheap and Dawn was a natural at it. Her talent was spotted by a local coach, Harry Gallagher, who began the coaching process that would take her to greatness. She became a legend to not only Australia, but the World.

However, the single-minded focus and ambitious determination to win that were key ingredients in her success also landed her in hot water with sporting officials.  At 12 years of age Dawn won a local kids Christmas swimming event and was given the “gift” of 2 shillings.  This event gave Dawn her first exposure to the rigid rules and class snobbery that plagued the amateur swimming bureaucracy back in those days.   

“At 12 years of age I was called into the New South Wales Swimming Office, and I went in there with my first coach, who was my cousin, Chuck Miranda, and Berge Phillips sat behind his big, leather desk, and slapped the desk and said, you know, "you will never swim for Australia because you come from Balmain". And I think that's where I started being very rebellious towards officialdom. And I got up and I slapped the desk and said, "Yes I will".” 

You see, Dawn Fraser had pluck!  Unfortunately, she had it in an era when such a commodity was not tolerated – especially from a young working class girl!  Back in the 50’s and 60’s, when “nice” women were meant to be in the kitchen cooking up a batch of well-conformed scones, Dawn was intent on being true to herself, her dreams and her family.

Establishing herself as a champion in both mind and body, and with an uncompromising resolve, Dawn won 4 Olympic Gold medals across 3 Olympiads.  She broke and held 41 world records.  The 100m freestyle record was hers for 15 years.  She was the first woman to break the 1 minute barrier for the 100m.  She was the first of only three swimmers ever to individually win gold at three successive games for the same event.  Her record is breathtaking!  Not since Phar Lap and Bradman had a sporting hero galvanized a nation like Dawn Fraser did.

A big part of what endeared Dawn to her sporting fans was her clear sense of herself as just an ordinary fun-loving girl from the working class suburbs of Sydney. It was this quality that also drove a wedge between herself and the swimming establishment.  The most famous example of this occurred at the 1964 Tokyo games…

The lead up to the Tokyo games was horrendous for Dawn.  She was the driver in a major car accident where her Mum was killed and she herself incurred cracked vertebra in her neck.   Dawn was in hospital for some time and spent nine weeks in a steel neck brace. Dawn could have chosen to quit swimming and given up. Almost everyone would have let her without a fuss because they knew how hard and tragic these times were for her but instead Dawn Fraser drew on her determination and her courage, and believing she carried the hopes of a nation on her shoulders Dawn began to prepare for Gold in Tokyo.

"I had worked very hard after the car accident in which my mother was killed, to get to that Olympic Games. There was nothing that was going to stand in my way to winning a Gold Medal."

And true to her word, Dawn brought home the gold.  But again the swimming bureaucracy was in conflict with this determined working class woman.  After winning her third successive Olympic 100m gold, Dawn and some others, fuelled with the joie-de-vivre only Olympic athletes can know, decided they wanted to bag some souvenirs for home.  They targeted the flags on the boulevard leading to the Imperial Palace but were arrested by the Japanese police.  Upon realizing whom they had nabbed, the police released them (and even later gave her the flag as a gift!).   But this adventure only added fuel to the wrath of the Australian Amateur Swimming Association (AASA).  For, along her path, Dawn had racked up such grievous crimes as not wearing the ill-fitting official team swimsuit (instead wearing one she had made herself which was more comfortable), marching in the opening ceremony (who would want to miss that?) against team orders and not wearing the team tracksuit to receive a medal.  Australian swimming’s governing body again banned her, but this time it was a 10 year ban. 

Crazy!  These days you’d have to be guilty of a serious drug offence to get a sentence like that.  At 27, this meant the end of her swimming career.

Despite these bans Dawn has not indulged in bitterness. She was awarded the World Athlete of the Century and continues to give back to her sport and other sports in many ways including being a mentor for Able and Disable Australian Olympic teams since 1988.

Throughout her life, the girl from Balmain has embodied a healthy larrikin spirit while proving time and time again that the pursuit of excellence is one we can all follow because even working class, single mums from Balmain can wear the pride of a nation.

1 comment

Jennifer Thulborn

Such an inspiring story! I love Dawn for being her true amazing self and not only achieving her goal of being a champion swimmer but to have overcome pain and the toughest times throughout her life then to help others live their best life. In some ways i can relate to Dawn.

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Joanne Clark

Joanne Clark is an Internationally accredited Master Trainer of NLP who has been delivering NLP training since 2011.  Being on her feet in front of training rooms is where Jo loves to be and her passion for inclusive and immersive training that delivers outstanding learning outcomes is apparent to everyone in her training rooms.  On average Jo delivers 140 days of training per year in addition to online webinars, guest speaker events and group coaching. 

“NLP is at the core of all my training and coaching, it is at the core of who I am, how I interact and connect with people.  I am absolutely passionate about spreading the NLP tools across the planet as I endeavour to support Robert Dilts’s vision of Creating a world to which people want to belong.” Joanne Clark

Certified Master Trainer of NLP; Master Practitioner NLP, Hypnotherapy & Matrix Therapies; Performance Coach; Cert IV Coaching; Advanced Practitioner in Coaching; Cert IV in Business; BA(Hons); Majors in Sociology and Psychology; Parent Education Leadership Training (PELT) Certificate; Mother of four children; Private Pilot (PPL); Diploma in Life Coaching