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.
Sarah Frances ‘Fanny’ Durack, was born in Sydney on October 27, 1889, as the sixth child to Irish parents Thomas Durack, publican, and his wife Mary (née Mason). Known as Fanny, she learned to swim breaststroke in Coogee, and during this time she met future swimming partner Wilhelmina ‘Mina’ Wylie. Wylie’s father, Henry Alexander Wylie, owned Wylie Baths, 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 Mina came to perfect the front ‘Australian’ crawl style, an early variation of the stroke now often referred to as freestyle. Mina won the 100 yard breaststroke and 100 and 220 yard freestyle events, ahead of Fanny, 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.
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.
Life in the fast lane (of the pool)
Fanny’s career is just as outstanding for her athletic achievement as it is a symbol of change in the way society saw women in Australia during the start of the twentieth century. Only five years after Annette Kellerman was arrested at Revere Beach, Massachusetts, for indecency, Fanny and Mina became the centre of a public controversy over what constituted modesty and decency for women swimmers. 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.
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. Good riddance! 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. Durack and Wylie arrived back home to great celebrations. And rightly so!
Broken records player
Following her Olympic success, Fanny travelled across Europe and the United States taking part in swimming carnivals and putting on exhibition swims. 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)
All fun and (Olympic) Games Until
Stockholm turned out to be the only Olympic Games that Fanny swam in. The Berlin Games, set to be in 1916, were called off because of World War 1. When the Olympic Games were held in Antwerp in 1920, Fanny came down with appendicitis (timing!!) so she couldn’t compete. She sadly developed typhoid fever and pneumonia after the appendectomy, which marked the end of her competitive swimming career. Fanny then retired and switched to coaching. In 1921, Fanny married horse trainer Bernard Gately, and became Fanny Gately. The couple settled in Stanmore. In 1945, Fanny was made a life member of the NSW Women's Amateur Swimming Association. She was also included in the International Swimming Hall of Fame in Florida, USA, and at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, Durack was had a thoroughfare in the Olympic Village named after her in her honour. She passed away on 20 March 20, 1956, at the age of 66. Fanny Durack's gold medal is now held at the National Library in Canberra.
- 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.