Celebrating game-changing female Olympians on International Women's Day
7 March 2019
AOC: The Australian Olympic Team boasts a multitude of incredible female Olympians spanning from the early 1900’s. In honour of International Women’s Day, we take a look back at some of these incredible women in Australian sport.
Many of the younger generation may not have heard the name ‘Fanny Durack’ but she paved the way for Australian sportswomen over a century ago, when she became the first Australian woman to win an Olympic gold medal.
Sarah ‘Fanny’ Durack rose to fame at Stockholm 1912, setting world records in the 100 and 220 yard freestyle events. This was back in the days when swimming in Australia was segregated by gender and females were not even able to be watched by male spectators, including their family.
After public outcry, these rules were changed so that Durack could compete at Stockholm, where she won Australia’s first female, and only, gold medal of the 1912 Olympics, followed by fellow Australian Wilhelmina Wylie in second place.
From 1910-1918 she was known as the world's greatest female swimmer of all distances, from freestyle to marathon and her spirit, tenacity and talent were likened to her later successor, Dawn Fraser.
Marjorie Jackson-Nelson, also known as the ‘Lithgow Flash’ made history in track and field when she became the first Australian woman to set an athletics world record and win an Olympic athletics gold medal.
It was at Helsinki 1952 where she claimed the 100m and 200m gold medals, breaking a 16-year-old world record in the 200m.
Jackson-Nelson was the first Australian, male or female, to win an Olympic gold medal in athletics since Australia’s very first Olympian, Edwin Flack, in 1896.
In honour of her incredible feats, Jackson was awarded an Order of Merit by the Australian Olympic Federation and in 1985 was inducted into the Sport Australia Hall of Fame
Never turning down an opportunity to give back to Australian sport, Jackson-Nelson carried the Olympic flag during the Sydney 2000 Opening Ceremony, this was two weeks after major back surgery where she had to stand for the duration of her flight from South Australia to Sydney.
From 2001-2007 she served as the Governor of South Australia, while in 2008 had the Olympic Order bestowed upon her, and in 2013 was inducted into the IAAF Hall of Fame.
18-year-old Betty Cuthbert rated her chances of making the Melbourne 1956 Olympic Games as so far-fetched, that she purchased tickets to attend as a spectator. Little did she know she would soon become the ‘Golden Girl’ of the Games, picking up an incredible three gold medals for Australia.
Cuthbert won gold in the 100m, 200m and 4 x 100m relay at Melbourne 1956, making her the first Australian, male or female, to ever win three gold medals at an Olympic Games. The teenage superstar became the poster girl for the true Aussie underdog; inspiring and exciting the nation.
Cuthbert called time on her career shortly after, but it wasn’t long before she laced up her running shoes again, for a shot at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. It was here that she claimed her fourth gold medal, in the 100m.
Just five years later the golden girl was heartbreakingly diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Cuthbert passed away in August 2017 but leaves a legacy that will never be forgotten.
Anyone born before the year 2000 can recount exactly where they were when Cathy Freeman sprinted to 400m gold at Sydney 2000.
It was a moment that united an entire nation, when the then 27-year-old carried both the Australian and Aboriginal flags during her victory lap; A fitting honour for the Olympic torch bearer and cauldron lighter as she celebrated both a century of women’s participation in the Olympics and the heritage of Indigenous Australians.
Freeman’s gold in the 400m also broke a 54-year-drought, as she became the first Australian woman since Betty Cuthbert in 1956 to win a flat race on the track at the Games.
Freeman ended her athletics career with a gold and silver Olympic medal, two World Championship golds and one bronze, four Commonwealth Games golds and one silver, as well as multiple national and international titles.
Freeman still sits as the sixth fastest woman in the world, but now devotes her time to inspiring future generations through her Cathy Freeman Foundation.
As a 27-year-old Alisa Camplin-Warner won Australia’s first ever Olympic skiing gold medal at Salt Lake City 2002, after buying her first pair of skis just five years prior.
Camplin-Warner’s childhood dream was to represent Australia at an Olympic Games, although she assumed it would be in either athletics or gymnastics, that was until she was scouted at a trampoline demonstration and recruited into the new sport of aerial freestyle skiing.
It took Camplin-Warner seven years of training along with a broken hand, collarbone, shoulder, twice-dislocated sternum, torn hip flexor and knee, two broken ankles and 12 cracked ribs before she made her Olympic debut.
The resilient Victorian believed all the injuries had been worthwhile to claim Olympic gold, but shortly after, the 31-year-old tore her anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) putting her out of competition for ten months, before tearing the same ligament just months out from Torino 2006.
Amazingly, she was able to complete her rehab and qualify for Torino 2006 where she found bronze with her trademark triple twisting double somersaults.
After her Torino campaign, Camplin-Warner announced her retirement, saying she had achieved everything she had ever wanted from the sport.
She is now an accomplished business woman, company director, executive coach, keynote speaker and television commentator.
Track cyclist Anna Meares amassed some exceptional feats during her 15-year-career. With six Olympic medals (including two gold), 11 World Championship titles, five Commonwealth Games golds and 35 national crowns she has left a legacy that is hard to match, but in 2008 her career almost came to a premature end.
In January of 2008, just seven months out from the Beijing Olympic Games, Meares suffered a horrific injury at the World Cup in Los Angeles, which resulted in a broken neck.
Travelling at 65 km/h the then 24-year-old broke a vertebra, dislocated her right shoulder, tore multiple ligaments and tendons and skinned various parts of her body.
The impact was labelled ‘career ending’ and all hopes for a shot at Beijing 2008 were seemingly dashed, that was for everyone but Anna. After spending less than two weeks in a wheelchair and neck brace, Meares got back on the bike, determined to defend her Olympic crown.
After six months of gruelling preparation she rode to silver in Beijing before taking back her rightful place on the throne at London 2012, finding her second Olympic gold medal.
Meares continued her inspiring journey, creating history by becoming the first Australian to medal in four Olympic Games, when she claimed bronze at Rio 2016 before calling time on her illustrious career later that year.
Slalom paddler, Jessica Fox made history last year, officially earning the title of, ‘World’s Greatest Paddler’ aka the paddle G.O.A.T (Greatest of All-Time).
Usurping both her mum and dad from the throne, Fox was able to pull off a perfect season, becoming the first person to win every C1 race in a season, along with being the first to win the dual C1 and K1 World Championship crown.
Claiming gold at the Singapore 2010 Youth Olympics, followed by silver at London 2012 as a teenager, and bronze at Rio 2016, 24-year-old Fox is one of the exciting young Australian athletes expected to etch her name into sporting folklore.
The Fox family has a penchant for breeding success. Her mother and coach, Myriam is a dual-Olympian and K1 Olympic bronze medallist, while her father, Richard who competed at Barcelona 1992 is a five-time world champion. Younger sister Noemi is also making her mark, tearing up the rapids.
As we head towards Tokyo 2020, Fox will be one to watch for Australia’s next biggest history maker.