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Australia's swimming success and swimming pools

Australian swimming successes at the Melbourne (1956), Rome (1960) and Tokyo (1964) Olympics fuelled enthusiasm for competitive swimming in pools. Swimming pools came to be seen as a standard local government community facility that was available to all Australians.

Roselands Swimming Centre, main pool

Unknown, Roselands Swimming Centre, main pool, ca. 1970. Image courtesy of the Canterbury City Council: 10024 nm.

This followed Australia's early competitive swimming events in ocean baths from the early 1900s until 1949. In 1962 Beatty Park Pool was built for the Seventh British Empire and Commonwealth Games, in Perth. The newly-built centre incorporated every aspect of modern pool planning.

A symbol of modern living

In the 1960s and 1970s, purpose-built swimming pools offered swimmers some advantages over ocean baths, foreshore enclosures and jetty diving, especially in terms of water quality and facilities.

The first advantage was chlorinated water, which offered the promise of clean water, in stark contrast to the sewerage outlet problems of the beaches where some of the ocean baths were located, such as Coogee and Bondi. In country areas rivers, creeks and water holes had become polluted from chemical fertilisers such as superphosphate, used in wheat farming. A hundred years earlier in Adelaide swimmers left the swimming holes in the Torrens River for the beaches as 'they quickly sought less polluted water for their leisure moments'. Natural swimming holes no longer necessarily offered a healthy swimming environment.

Consequently, purpose-built community swimming pools became a symbol of modern living. With the introduction of the Local Government (Personal Income Tax Sharing ) Act 1976 all local governing bodies were entitled to a fixed portion of Commonwealth personal income. This was given in return for local governments allocating resources for developing standard government facilities such as library and recreation facilities. The effect of this was that a swimming pool came to be seen as a standard community facility.

A community facility for all Australians

Charles Perkins at Moree Pool

Charles Perkins at Moree Pool 17 February 1965. The Australian, 19 February 1965. Image courtesy of the National Museum of Australia Freedom Ride, 1965.

Community access to facilities like swimming pools did not, however, extend to Aboriginal people. In 1965 Aborigines did not have access to local Government swimming pools. A large public protest outside the public swimming pool in Moree, New South Wales, led by Aboriginal activist Charles Perkins was successful in letting Aborigines into swimming pools.

Access and equity to services for all by 1998, did not extend to swimming pools for Aboriginal communities in remote areas, despite some communities being equal or larger in size than local government areas, and despite a national commitment in 1992. Aboriginal communities usually had a different status to local government entities which required a need for its integration with local area planning. Following in the tradition of the construction of the public ocean baths, public subscription is the means by which communities in remote areas are now building their own swimming pools.

Many past and present swimmers have become national and international icons of the sport. In the post-war period where Olympians trained in purpose-built Olympic swimming pools, Murray Rose, Dawn Fraser and Ian Thorpe are standouts.

Beatty Park and the Commonwealth Games Perth, 1962

Beatty Park Aquatic Centre swimming pool during Commonwealth Games

Beatty Park Aquatic Centre swimming pool during Commonwealth Games, 1962. Image courtesy of the State Library of Western Australia: 214908PD. Cyril and Ethel Peet Memorial Fund.

In 1962, Perth hosted the Empire (Commonwealth) Games and Beatty Park Aquatic Centre was built on the east side of Loftus Street as the venue for the swimming events. The newly-built centre incorporated every aspect of modern pool planning, including three pools, galleries for 5,500 spectators, a dramatic lighting system and a garden cafe. The chlorination plant was the most modern in Australia and an oil fuel heating unit kept the water temperature at 70 degrees Centigrade in all three pools. Perth Town Clerk W. A. McInness Green was responsible for planning the centre. An engineer and architect, he designed the centre after months of study and an extensive overseas tour.

An innovation for divers was an on-the-spot competitors room at the 3-metre board level, eliminating much of the long climb to the high-tower and walks to and from the dressing rooms. A glass wall enabled resting divers to see rivals in action. The third pool was for children.

medallists in the 440 yards freestyle, Murray Rose, Alan Wood, Bob Windle

All Australian medallists in the 440 yards freestyle, gold Murray Rose, silver Alan Wood, bronze Bob Windle. Image courtesy of the State Library of Western Australia: 257523PD.

Australian men won gold and silver medals in all the stroke events at the 1962 Commonwealth Games. Australians Julian Carroll and Tony Fingleton won gold and silver in the 220 Yards Men's Backstroke. Ian O'Brien and William Burton won gold and silver medals respectively in both the 110 and also the 220 Yards Breaststroke. Kevin Berry and Neville Hayes maintained the momentum by winning gold and silver in 110 Yards Butterfly. In the 440 Yards Men's Freestyle, all the Medal Winners were Australian: Murray Rose, Allan Wood and Robert Windle with times of 4:20, 4:22 and 4:23. Murray Rose also won the 1650 Yards Men's Freestyle.

Not surprisingly after these results, all the medley relays were won by Australians in the men's events. Alex Alexander and John Oravainen won gold and silver medals in the 440 Yards Individual Medley. Australian men won the gold medal in the 4 x 110 Yards Freestyle Relay, 4 x 220 Yards Freestyle Relays and 4 x 110 Yards Medley Relay. It was an extraordinary triumph.

In the women's swimming events, Dawn Fraser won two gold medals for the 110 and 440 Yards Freestyle with compatriots Robin Thorn and Ilsa Konrads winning silver medals in the same races. Linda McGill won a bronze and silver medal for the 110 Yards Butterfly and 440 Yards Individual Medley with Jennifer Corish winning bronze in the medley. The Australian women swimmers won gold medals for both the 4 x 110 Yards Freestyle Relay and the 4 x 110 Yards Medley Relay.

Australian swimmers Ilsa Konrads, Dawn Frazer, and Lorraine Crapp 1960

Australian swimmers Ilsa Konrads, Dawn Frazer, and Lorraine Crapp 1960. Photo by Express Newspapers Getty Images. Image courtesy of the Australian Olympic Committee.

All up Australians won 105 medals38 gold, with 17 of those gold medals coming from the 27 on offer in the Beatty Park Pool. Linda McGill went on to become the first Australian to swim the English Channel in 1965. Anthony 'Tony' Fingleton's life was depicted in the movie Swimming Upstreamthe story of a young Australian swimmer who managed to reach the top of his sport despite a disruptive home life.

Dawn Fraser is arguably Australia's most famous Olympian. Winning eight medals at the Olympics (four gold and four silver) and six gold medals at the Commonwealth Games, she also set 27 individual world records.

Murray Rose was the only swimmer ever to have won the 400m freestyle twice in a row; an honour now shared with Ian Thorpe (2000-2004). In nine years Murray Rose set 15 world records. 'Bizarrely, even though he had recently set two world records, Australian swimming officials refused him permission to swim in the Olympic trials for the Tokyo Games. It was a frustrating ending to a wonderful career.' (Harry Gordon, AOC historian)

After the Games, as Perth's premier swimming venue, Beatty Park Aquatic Centre was a popular and well-frequented place for recreational swimming, as well as hosting uncounted numbers of school sports days, summer holiday swimming lessons and swimming club meets, and providing a training ground for competitive swimmers. Beatty Park was extensively renovated in 1994 to provide more modern pool facilities.

The Beatty Park Aquatic Centre is listed on the State Register as having special social significance because it has been a focus of water sport in the local and wider community for 4 decades.

Charles Perkins and the freedom to swim in pools, 1965

Police and locals confront the students at Moree

Police and locals confront the students at Moree 17 February 1965. Image courtesy of the National Museum of Australia Freedom Ride, 1965.

In 1965, Aboriginal people did not have access to amenities, such as cinemas, hotels, cafes and swimming pools, and often suffered prejudice and suspicion as well as verbal and, sometimes, physical abuse.

At Moree, covered by an increasing press contingent, the students, known as the Australian Freedom Riders, decided to address the segregation of the local swimming pool. The protest had three elements, from picketing the front of the council chambers, to taking Aboriginal children to the pool and holding a public meeting that evening. The protest was generally considered a great success with the pool being effectively desegregated.

Charles Perkins recalled:

'Righto, jump on the bus'. So we went away, jumped on the bus and took off to the swimming pool. Didn't know what we were going to do. So we got to the swimming pool and everybody said, 'Well what are we going to do?' I said, 'Oh, well, what if we just bar everybody going through. If we don't go through, nobody goes through'. Well, that was it. So we grabbed hold of the turnstile. We grabbed hold of the turnstile and I said, 'That's it, nobody's going through. If these kids aren't allowed to go through and we're not allowed to go through, nobody goes through'. Well you know, that just ... Imagine, everybody wanted a swim. It was a hot day. So they all gathered and everybody was coming with their towels and everything. 'What's going on?' 'Oh them bloody blacks are blocking up the entrance here'. 'Get rid of them'.

Well the eggs started flying, stones started flying ... So he said 'We've got to get the police', so the police started to do it all then. But we kept going. And we just jammed it all up. And then they said, 'All right, everybody in'. So everybody got in. So that was that at Moree.

The legacy of the Freedom Ride and the follow-up trips that were made was a greater awareness of Aboriginal issues in a rural context. This debate, in part, led to the 1967 Referendum, which approved two amendments to the Australian constitution to allow Aboriginal people to be counted.

Community shire, urban and suburban swimming pools and their clubs

Binalong Memorial Swimming Pool

Binalong Memorial Swimming Pool. Courtesy of Yass Valley Council.

Many Australians are members of swimming clubs and many young Australians take part in school swimming carnivals, through which a few emerge as elite swimmers who compete at a national and international level. Swimming clubs are run by committed members of the community at their local swimming pool.

Swimming pools have become established in community areas, often after a long history of club support, sometimes with local, state and commonwealth funding.

As a non-profit organisation, the Thebarton Aquatic Centre is owned and operated by Henley and Grange Swimming Club. Formed in 1912, the club is one of the oldest swimming clubs in Australia and as such has an iconic identity. The Henley and Grange long swim has for almost 90 years been regarded as one of the premier long swims on the Australian Amateur swimming calendar. A swim between the Henley and Grange Jetties has been a feature of Australia Day celebrations in South Australia for over 80 years. The tradition began in 1917 when the Henley and Grange Swimming Club held the first swim.

Ted Geary

Ted Geary's 40th Jetty to Jetty Swim, Henley Jetty 2006. Courtesy of AUSSI Masters, South Australia.

Up until the early 1930s the Henley and Grange Swimming Club swam in the sea, with events being swum alongside the Henley Jetty. In 1935, the club moved into the Henley Community pool (a 55 yard salt water pool) on the foreshore at Henley. The fortunes of the club were varied, in the 1960s and early 70s the club was the leading force in swimming and water polo in South Australia. In 1985, the Henley Pool closed and the Club was forced to move its operation to Thebarton High School Pool. This was an outdoor, unheated facility which could only be used for six months of the year. In 1993, a grant from the Federal Government allowed the enclosure and heating of the pool and the emergence of Thebarton Aquatic Centre.

The Ian Thorpe Aquatic Centre (2007) in Ultimo, Sydney was the last public building designed by Harry Seidler. It has a dramatic wave-like shaped roof and makes use of natural light and ventilation. It represents the quintessential merging of modern swimming combined with all the best of swimming pool facilities, controlled water temperature and an extensive range of facilities in the heart of the city.

Ian Thorpe is the twenty-first century's swimming icon and is one of the most recognised sportspeople of the world. At 21 years of age Thorpe was the world record holder for the 200 metres, 400 metres, and 800 metres freestyle. As of winter 2003, he had broken 22 world records and won three Olympic gold medals. He has also won several other awards, including the 2002 American International Athlete Trophy - 'Worlds Most Outstanding Athlete'.

National swimming teams

Swimming class, Olympic Pool, Canberra, 1965

Swimming class, Olympic Pool, Canberra, 1965. Image courtesy of the National Archives of Australia: A1500, K12487.

The Australian national swimming team is called the Telstra Dolphins. Its members take part in national and international meets throughout the year and train towards major events such the World Titles, Pan Pacific Championships, Commonwealth Games and Olympic Games.

Australian Institute of Sport

Swimming is one of the eight founding sports of the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS). Some swimmers live and train at the AIS while others, from Australia and overseas, visit for specialised training and advice. The AIS residential program is devoted to swimming excellence. The Institute provides a unique opportunity for elite and potentially elite athletes to follow a sporting and academic or working career.

Swimming clubs and water safety

Photo of children receiving swimming advice from Dawn Fraser.

Children at a learn-to-swim campaign lesson in Australia receive advice from Dawn Fraser after a training session, 1964. Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia: 1588196.

Australians are encouraged to learn to swim as early as in their first year. While initially the aim of swimming programs is teaching water safety and buoyancy, later programs focus on stroke development and technique.

Local government associations regulate the safety barriers for swimming pools, especially in regard to safety standards and child resistant barriers surrounding all backyard swimming pools.

Remote natural and swimming pools

Like ocean baths, swimming holes in inland Australia are naturally occurring rock pools. Instead of tidal pools, they are usually fed by underground springs. Close to Darwin and Katherine in the Northern Territory there are a number of well known natural swimming holes: Berry Springs, Howard Springs and the Mataranka Thermal Pools.

Howard Springsa rural area on the outskirts of Darwin that covers over 1000 hectares just 30 kilometres from the centre of townis a great place to swim and snorkel in natural springs with the huge barramundi that live there. It is predominantly eucalypt woodland and monsoon rainforest so the activities include bushwalking, swimming and birdwatching.

Holiday makers swim in Lake Bowre

Holiday makers swim in Lake Bowre, North Queensland, 1971. Image courtesy of National Archives of Australia: A1500, K28278.

Located on the Roper River are the Mataranka Thermal Pools, part of Elsey National Park. The Park is 8 km away from Mataranka. The temperature of the thermal pools is 34-degrees Celsius.

Berry Creek starts from a number of springs, forms a small creek, then reaches Darwin Harbour through a mangrove lined estuary. The Berry Springs Nature Park provides an attractive area close to Darwin for picnics and swimming and is surrounded by monsoon rainforest.

Across Australia in state and National Parks are quality natural swimming holes, lakes and rivers.

Swimming pools in remote areas for Aboriginal communities

In 2000, three swimming pools were opened in the communities of Jigalong, Burringurrah and Yandeyarra and the health of the children in two of these communities - Jigalong and Burringurrah, was followed by Telethon Institute for Child Health Research for the Western Australian Department of Housing and Works.

The results were published in the British Medical Journal. They showed that there was a reduction in prevalence of skin infection and eardrum perforations, particularly in Burringurrah from over 60% to 20% for skin infections and from nearly 35% to a low of 15% for eardrum perforations.

Among children who remained in Jigalong throughout the study, an average of 6 courses of antibiotics per child were prescribed in the year prior to the pool opening and then 4, 2. 5 and 1. 3 courses per child, respectively, in each subsequent year.
Mary Tennant, Impact of Swimming Pools on Health of Aboriginal Children in Remote Western Australian Communities

With the introduction of the Royal Life Saving Societies 'swim and survive' program (conducted by Royal Life Saving Societies pool managers) all school age children in the communities currently have swimming lessons.

Kintore Pool opening

Kintore Pool opening. Image courtesy of Central Land Council.

In 2005 Hetti Perkins, the New South Wales Gallery's Aboriginal art curator and daughter of the late Indigenous rights activist Dr Charles Perkins, hosted an auction of Aboriginal art, with all funds raised going towards the construction of two pools in Kintore and Maningrida, about 430 kilometres west of Darwin. The proposal is modelled on the success of the swimming pool at Wadeye, 350 kilometres south-east of Darwin. Hetti Perkins believes that the infections that plague Aboriginal communities are significantly reduced in communities with access to a swimming pool.

In 2005, the first round of the Pools in Remote Areas [PIRA] program funded two Territory communities, Yuendumu and Maningrida, respectively Tanami Desert and Arafura Sea communities respectively, to build swimming pools. The communities anticipated direct health, educational, employment and enterprise benefits from the construction of the swimming pools.

In 2005, Commonwealth funding was provided for the construction of swimming pools in remote Indigenous communities, under a 'no school, no pool' policy. Communities had responsibility to run and supervise the pools and ensure that access to the pool depends on attendance at school. Arrangements to monitor school attendance, pool management and maintenance, and training and support for health and safety were to be put in place. It was based on a successful 'no school, no pool' initiative trialled in the Northern Territory.

The Kintore Pool was opened in February 2008. The Kintore community, 500 kilometres west of Alice Springs near the Western Australia border, raised the bulk of the funds to build the pool after the Art Gallery of New South Wales auction of artworks in November 2005 raised more than $900,000 for the project. Papunya Tula artists had donated the works for the auction.

In October 2008, Yuendumu community raised enough money to have a pool built under the Pools in Remote Areas scheme, contributing $400,000 of their royalty money from a nearby mine to bring their dream to reality. The shared funding arrangement was an equal three way split between the Commonwealth Government, the Territory Government, and the Yuendumu Community.

Swimming represented in the arts

Russell Mulcahy Swimming upstream, 2003. Image courtesy of Qwipster's Movie Reviews.

Swimming is also a popular topic of films and books in Australia. Many of Australia's champion swimmers have had books written about their lives and achievements, and the 2003 movie Swimming Upstream, starring Academy Award winning actor Geoffrey Rush alongside Judy Davis and Jesse Spencer, tells the story of former backstroke swimmer Tony Fingleton, who in the early 1960s dreamt of being the next Murray Rose.

Australia's black sense of humour is also shown in the (perhaps unintentional) example of the naming of the Harold Holt Memorial Swimming Pool in the City of Malvern, Melbourne after Prime Minister Harold Holt who disappeared whilst swimming in the ocean in 1967. Holt had decided to go swimming, although the surf was heavy and Cheviot Beach was notorious for its strong currents and dangerous rips. Holt was Malvern's local member for Parliament.

Useful links

Listen, look and play

National swimming organisations

State and territory swimming organisations


Pools and aquatic centres

Aboriginal access to amenities

Major events


Other resources

Last updated: 12 January 2009
Creators: Kathryn Wells