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Clara (Clare) Dennis (1916–1971)

by V. M. Raszeja

This article was published:

Clare Dennis, by Sam Hood, 1934

Clare Dennis, by Sam Hood, 1934

State Library of New South Wales, 3841

Clara (Clare) Dennis (1916-1971), swimmer, was born on 7 March 1916 at Burwood, Sydney, third of six children of native-born parents Alexander Miller Dennis (d.1931), police constable, and his wife Susan Violet, née Efford. In the early 1920s the family moved to Clovelly. Clare, as she was known, attended the local public and Randwick Domestic Science schools. By a determined splash across Clovelly Bay at the age of 7, she had persuaded her father to let her join her elder sister Thora at the Sydney Ladies' Swimming Club. Inspired by Thora's selection in the Australian team for the Olympic Games in 1928, Clare was soon competing in interclub events and left school at 14.

In the 1930 State championships Dennis discovered that breast-stroke was her forte. She won her first New South Wales and Australian 220 yards breast-stroke titles in 1931. On 18 January 1932 at the Domain baths she broke the world record—swimming 200 metres breast-stroke in 3 minutes 8.6 seconds. Her achievement brought automatic selection for the 1932 Olympics at Los Angeles, United States of America, but it was only through various donations that Dennis was able to attend.

In the heats she was almost disqualified for showing 'too much shoulder blade' in her regulation, silk, Speedo swim-suit. Following protracted official negotiations the charge was dismissed and Dennis went on—with a new Olympic and world record time of 3 minutes 6.3 seconds for the 200 metres breast-stroke—to become the first Australian woman, since Fanny Durack in 1912, to bring home an Olympic gold medal. The Australian press admired Dennis's speed, strength and, not least, her 'femininity'. Engaged in the 'graceful', no 'muscles-or-sweat' sport of swimming, she avoided the opprobrium often cast on female athletes.

After returning from Los Angeles, Dennis began work for Anthony Hordern & Sons Ltd in Sydney and devoted her spare time to swimming. In February 1933 she broke Australian and world records with a 100 metres breast-stroke swim of 1 minute 24.6 seconds and set a new Australian record of 3 minutes 9.2 seconds for the 220 yards breast-stroke. Next year, in London, she became the first Australian woman to win a gold medal in the British Empire Games (with a time of 2 minutes 50.2 seconds for the 200 yards breast-stroke). In 1936, amid much controversy, she was passed over for the Berlin Olympics. Disappointed, she retired from amateur competitive swimming, although she continued to swim for pleasure and was to be involved in professional coaching.

On 12 December 1942 at the Presbyterian Church, Randwick, Dennis married George Augustus Golding, a detective in the police force and a former Olympic track athlete; they were to remain childless. She was then a masseuse and owned two hairdressing salons, at Clovelly and Henley. George taught her to shoot, and they enjoyed frequent hunting trips. Having lived in several Sydney suburbs—thanks to George's hobby of building houses—the Goldings eventually settled at Manly. Clare died of cancer on 4 June 1971 at a local private hospital and was cremated. In 1981 she was honoured by the Swimming Hall of Fame at Fort Lauderdale, Florida, U.S.A., and in 1985 she was listed in the Sport Australia Hall of Fame, Melbourne.

Select Bibliography

  • G. Atkinson, Australian and New Zealand Olympians (Melb, 1984)
  • R. and M. Howell, Aussie Gold (Brisb, 1988)
  • A. Clarkson, Lanes of Gold (Syd, 1990)
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 19 Jan 1931, 11 Aug 1932, 10, 15 Feb 1933, 8 Aug 1934, 6 Apr 1936
  • Times (London), 7 Aug 1934
  • Sun (Sydney), 6 June 1984
  • V. Raszeja Wood, A Decent and Proper Exertion: The Rise of Women's Competitive Swimming in Sydney to 1912 (B.A. Hons thesis, University of New South Wales, 1990)
  • private information.

Additional Resources

Citation details

V. M. Raszeja, 'Dennis, Clara (Clare) (1916–1971)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 13 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (Melbourne University Press), 1993

View the front pages for Volume 13

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