Sarah Frances "Fanny" Durack (27 October 1889 – 20 March 1956), also known by her married name Fanny Gately, was an Australian competition swimmer. In the 1910s Fanny Durack was the fastest female swimmer in Australia and was told she couldn't compete in the upcoming Olympics because as a woman it was ‘immodest’. But she was all like “Fuck that” and became not only Australia’s first female Olympian, but broke the world record for the 100m at the 1912 Stockholm Games. She’s a true Sheila because she didn’t take no for an answer and refused to abide by the ‘rules’ of how a woman at the time ‘should’ behave. Something to remember any time someone says having tits is standing in between you and your dreams.
Fanny learned to swim breaststroke at Coogee, and during this time she met future swimming partner Wilhelmina ‘Mina’ Wylie. Wylie’s father, Henry Alexander Wylie, owned Wylie Baths, Coogee, and it was there that the two future Olympians came to perfect their sport.
In 1906, at the age of 17, Durack won her first title. Over the coming years she would come to dominate the female swimming scene. By 1908 she had taken up the Trudgen stroke to improve her times, and over 1910/1911 season she and Wylie came to perfect the front ‘Australian’ crawl style, an early variation of the stroke now often referred to as freestyle. Wylie won the 100 yard breaststroke and 100 and 220 yard freestyle events, ahead of Durack, at the Australian Swimming Championships at Rose Bay. But competitive swimming for women was in its infancy when Fanny Durack first took to the sport.
Given her successes in amateur competitions, there was considerable public demand for Fanny Durack and Mina Wylie to go to the 1912 Olympic Games in Stockholm. This, however, was met with opposition from the Australian Olympic Committee and the New South Wales Ladies Swimming Association.
1912 Stockholm Olympics Stockholm was the first Olympics to host women’s swimming events. Durack and Wylie almost didn’t make it to the 1912 Olympic Games. They were initially excluded from the Australasian Olympic team because the selection committee claimed that they could not afford to send female competitors. Additionally, the New South Wales Ladies’ Amateur Swimming Association forbade women to appear in competitions where men were present.
Rose Scott, President of the NSW Ladies Swimming Association, opposed Durack and Wylie’s inclusion in the team. Scott was firmly believed that men should not be anywhere near a swimming pool, either as spectators or participants, while women were swimming.
This exclusion from the team led to a public outcry. Unsolicited donations came in from the public. Rose Scott and the NSW Ladies Swimming Association became targets of ridicule, before the organisation conceded and endorsed Durack. Scott did not agree with the endorsement and immediately resigned. Sporting and theatre entrepreneur Hugh McIntosh was encouraged by his wife to co-ordinate the fundraising effort. With the obstacles cleared, Durack and Wylie could finally attend the Olympics. They comprised the first ever Australian Olympic Ladies’ Swimming Team. The Olympic swimming events were held in July, 1912. Fanny set a new world record – 1 minute 19.8 seconds. Two days later, the Australians each won a semi-final, Fanny’s time 1:20.2. The final was to be held the next day, Friday 12 July, at 7.30pm.
After the Olympics
Durack and Wylie arrived back home to great celebrations. Following her Olympic success, Durack toured the United States. Between 1912 and 1918 she broke 12 world records. Some of the records she held included:
- the 110 yards freestyle (1912-1921)
- the 100 metre freestyle (1912-1923)
- the 220 yards freestyle (1915-1921, the first woman to hold this record)
- the 500 metre freestyle (1916-1917);
- The mile record (1914-1926
In 1915, Durack was awarded the Helms world trophy for most outstanding amateur athlete, and in 1916 she gave an exhibition of swimming in the Cooks River at the Illawarra Road bridge. Fanny’s display was part of a carnival held to raise funds for the Australian New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) troops. In 1918, Durack and Wylie arrived in the United States without official sanction to find themselves banned by the Amateur Swimming Union of Australia. In 1919, the Amateur Athletic Union of the United States “threatened to suspend their amateur status, when they refused to swim until their manager’s expenses were paid.” In Chicago, Durack was ordered by officials to swim. She jumped the starter’s gun, swam half a length and got out, thus ending her tour.
- Fanny ran into the wall at the 1912 Olympics
- Fanny and Mina perfected the stroke that would become known as the 'Australian Crawl' (now commonly known as freestyle).
- There is now a pool named after Fanny Durack in Petersham, New South Wales
- Fanny was featured as a Google Doodle in 2018
- Durack was Australia’s only individual gold at the 1912 Olympics
- She was posthumously inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame as an "Honour Swimmer" in 1967.
- Sarah Durack Ave at Sydney Olympic Park in Sydney, Australia is named in honour of her.
- During World War I, a statue in the Somme, France, was hit by a shell slumped to a near-horizontal position. Australian troops nicknamed the leaning statue "Fanny", as it resembled the swimmer diving off the blocks.