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Sarah (Fanny) Durack (1889–1956)

by Helen King

This article was published:

Fanny Durack, by Exchange Studios, 1912

Fanny Durack, by Exchange Studios, 1912

National Library of Australia, 10716253

Sarah (Fanny) Durack (1889-1956), swimmer, was born on 27 October 1889 at Elizabeth Street, Sydney, third daughter and sixth child of Irish parents Thomas Durack, publican, a relation of Patrick Durack, and his wife Mary, née Mason. Known as Fanny, she learnt to swim in the Coogee Baths and trained in breast-stroke—the only style in which there was a championship for women. While still a schoolgirl, she won her first State title in 1906. Later she adopted the trudgen stroke and by 1911 had changed to the Australian crawl.

Although women had been forbidden by the New South Wales Ladies' Amateur Swimming Association to appear in competitions when men were present, such were her successes that there was public demand for her to go to the 1912 Olympic Games in Stockholm: debate among the clubs reversed the rule. It was argued that one event did not justify the inclusion of another swimmer, but the wife of Hugh McIntosh launched a successful appeal for funds. Fanny sailed for Sweden via London, where she trained only half a mile a day. At Stockholm she swam a heat of the 100 metres free-style in 1 minute 19.8 seconds to break the world record. On 15 July she won the gold medal for the 100 metres, the only individual event for women, beating fellow Australian Wilhelmina (Mina) Wylie.

Her Olympic success led to tours with Mina Wylie in Europe and the United States of America, but Fanny's career continued to be dogged by controversy. In 1918 they arrived in America without official sanction to find themselves banned by the Amateur Swimming Union of Australia. Next year the Amateur Athletic Union of the United States threatened to suspend their amateur status, when they refused to swim until their manager's expenses were paid. After being defeated in two carnivals by American girls, she determinedly tried to limit her appearances until she had practised the new American crawl. Ordered by officials to swim at Chicago she jumped the starter's gun, swam half a length and got out—the tour was curtailed.

A week before the Australian team left for the 1920 Antwerp Olympics, Fanny Durack had an appendectomy (followed by typhoid fever and pneumonia) and withdrew. Between 1912 and 1918 she had broken twelve world records, including swims of 100 yards (91 m) in 1 minute 6 seconds, 100 metres in 1 minute 16.2 seconds, and 1 mile (1.6 km) in 26 minutes 8 seconds. Her successes did much to promote women's swimming. Determined and self-willed, she had long dark hair and a figure that showed 'no symptom of ropes of athletic muscles'. In America she was honoured by the International Swimming Hall of Fame at Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and received a Helms award.

Early in January 1921 Fanny Durack retired from competitive swimming and on 22 January at St Mary's Cathedral she married Bernard Martin Gately, a horse-trainer. She devoted herself to coaching young children and, a member of its executive, was made a life member of the New South Wales Women's Amateur Swimming Association in 1945. She died of cancer at her home at Stanmore on 20 March 1956 and was buried in the Catholic section of Waverley cemetery. Her brother Frank presented her Olympic gold medal to the Commonwealth government that year; it is held in the National Library of Australia, Canberra.

Select Bibliography

  • F. Mezo, The Modern Olympic Games (Budapest, 1956)
  • D. Fraser and H. Gordon, Gold Medal Girl (Melb, 1965)
  • K. Dunstan, Sports (Melb, 1973)
  • P. Besford, Encyclopedia of Swimming (Lond, 1976)
  • New South Wales Ladies' Amateur Swimming Association, Annual Report, 1905-06, 1909-11 (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Referee (Sydney), July, Aug 1919
  • E. S. Marks sporting collection, no 20, 24, 448, 455, 622 (State Library of New South Wales).

Additional Resources

Citation details

Helen King, 'Durack, Sarah (Fanny) (1889–1956)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 24 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (Melbourne University Press), 1981

View the front pages for Volume 8

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Fanny Durack, by Exchange Studios, 1912

Fanny Durack, by Exchange Studios, 1912

National Library of Australia, 10716253

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Gately, Sarah

27 October, 1889
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


20 March, 1956 (aged 66)
Stanmore, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cause of Death

cancer (not specified)

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