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Beverley Joy (Bev) Whitfield (1954–1996)

by Glenn Mitchell

This article was published online in 2022

Bev Whitfield speaking at the opening of the pool named in her honour, 1994

Bev Whitfield speaking at the opening of the pool named in her honour, 1994

Shellharbour City Museum, 002858

Beverley Joy Whitfield (1954–1996), Olympic swimmer and youth worker, was born on 15 June 1954 at Wollongong, New South Wales, youngest of two children of New South Wales-born parents Maxwell Thomas Whitfield, fitter, and his wife Eva Margaret, née Faulks. Growing up at Shellharbour, Bev attended Shellharbour Public and Kiama High schools. When she was ten, her mother died from cancer. Around the same time, in a television broadcast, she saw the swimmer Dawn Fraser win an Olympic gold medal, and was inspired to emulate her achievement. Whitfield’s swimming career began with the ‘Learn to Swim’ program, in which her uncle Andrew Gerke was active. Lessons were a family affair, as he taught Bev, her sister, and his own children. She showed great promise at breaststroke. Victories at school, district, and State swimming championships led her to the coach Terry Gathercole.

Gathercole came to Shellharbour to watch Whitfield train in a public ocean pool. He was concerned that the pool lacked spill gutters, leading Whitfield to lift her head too high in order to compensate for the wash from the pool’s perimeter, slowing her speed. Gathercole recommended that she move her training to the better facilities offered in Sydney, where he could correct her stroke. Her family committed to the regular long drives to Sydney on weekends.

In 1968 Gathercole moved to the United States of America to coach a swim team at Midland, Texas. Whitfield moved there soon after, living with the Gathercole family. Her six-month stay was a turning point. She competed in the United States national titles in 1969, coming third in the 200-metres breaststroke. While continuing her studies at Midland High School, she produced an essay about her life’s ambition that showed clarity, focus, and maturity beyond her years. She had one desire: to win an Olympic gold medal in swimming in 1972. ‘That has been my only wish or desire,’ she wrote, ‘since I was 10 years old’ (Humphries 1976, 61).

After Whitfield returned to Australia in late 1969, she began training with a new coach, Don Talbot. In the next year she won the Australian 100- and 200-metres national titles, and was selected for the 1970 Edinburgh Commonwealth Games. There she won gold medals and set new Commonwealth records in both events, and won another gold medal in the 4 x 100-metre medley relay. In 1971 she again won the Australian 100- and 200-metres titles. She swam in May that year as a member of the Australian team at the international meet at London’s Crystal Palace, winning bronze in the 200 metres behind Galina Stepanova, from the Soviet Union. At the 1972 Australian titles Dorothy Harrison, an English swimmer who had come to Australia to train with Talbot, won the 100- and 200-metres titles from Whitfield, who nevertheless made the team for the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich.

Not a favourite for either the 100- or 200-metres breaststroke, Whitfield barely made the final for the 100 metres but won bronze. In the 200 metres, the event in which she was most favoured, she finished second behind Stepanova in her heat, and was sixth-fastest for the final. After the first lap of that race she was last, but she gained on her rivals, passing Stepanova and everyone else to win the gold medal in an Olympic record time. During her time in Munich she roomed with her fellow swimmer Shane Gould, who later recalled her appreciation for the toilet-paper room decorations Whitfield created to celebrate Gould’s victories.

On returning home, Whitfield was honoured by a cavalcade from Wollongong to Shellharbour. She continued to compete, winning her two events at the national championships in 1973 and 1974 and claiming two silver medals at the 1974 Christchurch Commonwealth Games. At the world swimming championships in Belgrade in 1973, she had failed to win a medal. In 1975 she lost her two national titles and her desire to compete. She retired and began to work with troubled youths. Known as the ‘Girl with the Golden Heart’ (Heads 2019, 156), she brought to her work at the Keelong Remand Centre, near Wollongong, the same qualities she had shown as a champion swimmer: humility, enthusiasm, and courage.

Whitfield never married. She was inducted into the Sport Australia Hall of Fame in 1988 and the International Swimming Hall of Fame in 1995. The pool where she began her career had been named the Beverley Whitfield Ocean Pool in 1994. She died of heart disease on 20 August 1996 at home at Thirroul, and was cremated. The Shellharbour City Council established swimming awards for primary school children in her name and a park in the suburb was also named after her.

Research edited by Karen Fox

Select Bibliography

  • Fitzsimons, Peter. ‘Olympian’s Joyous, Golden Race.’ Age, 28 August 1996, B2. Gould, Shane, Tumble Turns: An Autobiography. rev. ed. Pymble, NSW: HarperCollins, 2003
  • Hanson, Ian. ‘Medal Hero’s Heart of Gold.’ Australian, 22 August 1996, 15
  • Heads, Ian. ‘Poolside With Champions.’ In Great Australian Sporting Stories, by Ian Heads and Norman Tasker, 154–57. Sydney: Pan Macmillan Australia, 2019
  • Howell, Reet, and Max Howell. Aussie Gold: The Story of Australia at the Olympics. Albion, Qld: Brooks Waterloo, 1988
  • Humphries, Rod. ‘Days of Glory.’ Sun-Herald (Sydney), 19 December 1976, 61
  • International Swimming Hall of Fame. ‘Beverley Whitfield (AUS).’ Accessed 29 April 2021. Copy held on ADB file
  • Sport Australia Hall of Fame. ‘Beverley Whitfield: Swimming.’ Accessed 29 April 2021. Copy held on ADB file
  • Tongarra Museum and Shellharbour City Libraries. ‘Beverley Whitfield.’ Shellharbour’s Local History (blog), 8 January 2014. Accessed 29 April 2021. Copy held on ADB file
  • Whitfield Papers. Private collection

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Glenn Mitchell, 'Whitfield, Beverley Joy (Bev) (1954–1996)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2022, accessed online 22 June 2024.

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