Stouder Fraser Ellis in Tokyo
Medallists in the 100 metres freestyle swimming event at the Tokyo Olympics, 15th October 1964. Left to right: silver medallist Sharon Stouder of the U.S.A., third time gold medallist Dawn Fraser of Australia and bronze medallist Kathleen Ellis, also of the U.S.A. Fraser is holding up her lucky kangaroo mascot. (Photo by Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

No woman had ever won gold in three successive Olympics in the same event, but Dawn Fraser of Balmain, Australia was gunning for it.

Fraser’s breakthrough was at the Melbourne Olympics in 1956 as she beat her fellow Australians in the 100-meter freestyle, becoming an overnight sensation. Then in Rome, the American swimming team was a rising power, but Fraser stared them down to win the 100 meters. In Tokyo, the Americans were expected to win everything. And they came close. But Fraser, at the age of 27, beat 15-year old Sharon Stouder, and 17-year old Kathy Ellis to assure her status as one of the Olympiad’s greatest heroes.

But heroes often must pass painful trials to complete their journey. 1964 proved to be an emotional roller coaster for Fraser, beginning with a disaster for Fraser only 8 months before the Tokyo Olympics.

In February, Fraser was peaking, setting the world record in the 100 yards, and winning the 220 yard title at the National Championships in Sydney. One evening shortly after those championships, she and her family were enjoying an evening out. She had a car and offered to drive her sister home, accompanied with her mother and her friend, Wendy Walters. Here is how she describes the fatal crash in her autobiography, “Below the Surface“, that ended her mother’s life:

I was driving about 40 miles an hour. I’d been driving for 10 years, and I knew that this was about my limit with my mother on board; she was nervous about speed. We were sweeping around a curve on a highway called General Holmes Drive when I saw what looked like the cabin of a truck dead ahead. At the same moment, Wendy, who was next to me in the front seat, called out, ‘Look out, Dawn.’ I remember pulling the wheel hard to the right, and I think I must have hit the brakes hard. I learned a long time later that the driver of the truck we hit had parked his vehicle while he went fishing nearby in the Cook’s River. But my recollections of the crash are vague: a gigantic close-up of the cabin in our headlights, a high screech of tires on bitumen, and a terrible crash.

Walters had injuries to her face, while Fraser and her brother Ken recovered from injuries after arriving at the hospital unconscious. Fraser’s mother, however, was killed in the accident.

Over my last few days in the hospital, I was trying to sort my life out again, trying to adjust to the idea that my mother wasn’t there anymore. I couldn’t believe that it had all happened. And I kept blaming myself, because I had been driving the car. My mother was 68, and I was completely devoted to her; I don’t think I really knew how close we were until the accident, and then it was too late. My family kept trying to talk me out of my depression, telling me that it was foolish to accept the blame.

Fraser had pretty much given up on going to Tokyo. She was depressed, feeling guilty. She was at the wheel. She was responsible. On top of that, she had to wear an uncomfortable steel brace for nine weeks that kept her neck and back immobile, forcing her to turn her whole body just to talk to someone to her side. But recover she did, returning to the water

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Ada Kok Sharon Strouder butterfly 1964
From left to right: Ada Kok of the Netherlands, Sharon Stouder and Kathy Ellis of the United States.

 

She used to train with the boys – big boys, who were boxers during the day and bouncers in bars at night. Ada Kok was a teenage swimming phenom, asked to join the Dutch national swimming team at the age of 13, but in the early 1960s in Amsterdam, athletes were on their own.

“In those days, you just had a swimming coach but nothing for any condition training. The coach of the boxing team helped me. I ran in the park with the other boxers. I skipped rope. And my friends made sure that boys didn’t give me trouble when going out in Amsterdam because they’d tell them, ‘I’ll punch you in the nose if you don’t do right by her’.”

Inspired by her sister, who competed on the Dutch swim team at the 1960 Rome Olympics, Kok became the premier butterfly swimmer in the world, setting the world record in that discipline in September, 1963, and again in May, 1964. At the age of 17, Kok was the favorite going into the 1964 Summer Games in Tokyo.

Nearly matching her world record time, Kok swam an excellent race in the 100-meter butterfly finals. But she lost to Sharon Stouder of the USA, who broke Kok’s world record. Going into the finals, Kok expected to win, but in retrospect, she now knows she was unwittingly swimming upstream against a US team that was more prepared and more experienced than any other team.

“I was very disappointed,” Kok told me. “I was the world’s record holder for years, and I was training hard for this event. I didn’t know Sharon Stouder. I didn’t think about my competitors. I was confident, not arrogant. But I was also naïve.”

In the end, no other country had the resources to support a swim team like the USA at the time. Not only was the Netherlands 0.4% the size, 6.3% the population, and 43% of the per capita GDP of the United States in 1964, the US had the swim clubs, the coaches and the access to international competition that very few other athletes in the world had.

Ada Kok on bicycle in Tokyo Olympic Village
Ada Kok (left) on a bicycle in the Olympic Village in 1964.

“They were more professional,” said Kok of the Americans. “They had paid coaches. Mine was a volunteer, who had a regular job. Our swim federation didn’t have the money to send us abroad so we competed in nearby countries traveling at minimum cost.”

And yet, the Dutch women’s team still proved to be a powerful force, winning silver in a team race in the women’s 4X100 meter medley relay, a competition where four swimmers swim two lengths of the pool each in four different styles in this order: the backstroke, the breaststroke, the butterfly stroke, and freestyle (which means any style other than the previous three).

As a demonstration of American dominance, the US swim coach did not even use their top swimmers in the heats. And the four swimmers who swam in the finals set an Olympic record, finishing over three seconds faster than the silver medalists, the Dutch. Making it close was Ada Kok, who got some measure of revenge against Stouder by swimming the third leg butterfly stroke over 1 second faster than the American in the finals. “The silver medal for the team was a positive surprise,” said Kok. “We couldn’t get anywhere near the Americans, but to be second as a team was fantastic.”

Kok would regain her world record in the butterfly in August, 1965, as well as win the gold medal in the 200-meter butterfly in Mexico City in 1968. But she was happy with her results in 1964. “You’re always pleased to get a medal. When you’re on the podium, and you see it and touch it, it’s wonderful.”