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Marshall, John Birnie (1930–1957)

by Harry Gordon

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

John Birnie Marshall (1930-1957), swimmer, was born on 29 March 1930 at Bondi, Sydney, elder son of Alexander St Andrew McLean Marshall, a window dresser and former surf champion from Western Australia, and his Tasmanian-born wife Jean, née Birnie. Shortly after his birth, the family moved to Perth. By the age of 3 John was swimming in the Swan River and riding a pony over jumps. In 1935 the Marshalls shifted to Melbourne. John attended (1943-49) Haileybury College, Brighton, where he became an enthusiastic all-round sportsman, representing the school at cricket, football, athletics and swimming. He was also a prefect, but he did not distinguish himself as a scholar.

A shy, rather gawky youth, with large ears, a wide smile and a drawl, Marshall decided in 1944 to approach Tom Donnett, a coach at Richmond Baths. Donnett's early reaction was that he 'had natural buoyancy, enthusiasm and not much else. I liked his spirit . . . but he would bash along . . . without much idea of co-ordination'. Undeterred, Donnett moulded Marshall's fluid, gliding movement through the water; his kick gave him tremendous propulsion, and his almost languid stroke distinguished him from other swimmers.

Within months Marshall was winning races at the Brighton Beach Baths. He took his first title, the Victorian one-mile championship, in December 1945; and in Adelaide fourteen months later, when he was still 16, he won every national title from 220 yards to 1650 yards. At the Olympic Games in London in 1948, he finished second in the 1500 metres and third in the 400 metres. The renowned coach Bob Kiphuth, from the United States of America, offered to train him if he could gain entry to Yale University, New Haven. Back in Australia, Marshall made history in the following summer by capturing every Australian freestyle championship, from 110 to 1650 yards.

After much study, Marshall qualified to enter Yale (B.A., 1953). Under the conditioning régime of Kiphuth, he became bigger and stronger, and at the U.S. national titles in April 1950 broke four world records. Later that year he set fifteen world records within four months—over distances from 200 yards to one mile. In December he won the Helms Athletic Foundation award as Australasia's outstanding amateur sportsman for 1950. By mid-1951 he had set 171 records, including 28 world and 38 American. Then suddenly, inexplicably, he lost form.

Marshall suffered defeats in America, and at the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki he failed even to qualify for the final of the 400 metres (in which he held the world record). He finished last in the 1500 metres final, two laps behind the winner. Returning to Australia in 1954, he went to work for the tyre firm founded by the former Olympic swimmer Sir Frank Beaurepaire. At St Leonard's Presbyterian Church, Brighton Beach, on 14 September 1955 he married Wendy Patricia Byrne, an 18-year-old diving champion and receptionist.

By his example, Marshall made a huge contribution to the swimming revolution which culminated in Australia's great success at the Olympic Games in Melbourne in 1956. His preparation techniques and callisthenics, based on Kiphuth's teachings, became a blueprint for the visionaries of Australian swimming. In a bid to gain Olympic representation for a third time, he switched to the new stroke of butterfly. Excluded from Australia's 1956 Olympic squad, he forced his way into the team by winning two Games trials and finished fifth in the Olympic 200-metre final. He later won the Victorian 200-metre freestyle and butterfly championships, both in record times, and was named captain of the State team for the national titles.

On 25 January 1957 Marshall was critically injured when one of the tyres on his motorcar blew out and the vehicle crashed near Clunes, Victoria. He died six days later in Royal Melbourne Hospital and was cremated. His wife and seven-month-old son survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • G. Lomas, The Will to Win (Melb, 1960)
  • H. Gordon, Young Men in a Hurry (Melb, 1961)
  • P. Cerutty, Sport is My Life (Lond, 1966)
  • H. Gordon, Australia and the Olympic Games (Brisb, 1994)
  • Walkabout, Dec 1968
  • Age (Melbourne), 31 Jan 1957
  • Herald (Melbourne), 31 Jan 1957, 22 Jan 1958
  • Daily Mirror (Sydney), 5 Nov 1976.

Citation details

Harry Gordon, 'Marshall, John Birnie (1930–1957)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/marshall-john-birnie-11064/text19693, published in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 26 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

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