Mina Wylie & Fanny Durack – Best Friends & Olympic Swimming Champions
Updated: Oct 17, 2021
The inspiring story of two best friends, Australian swimmers, Mina Wylie and Sarah "Fanny" Durack" is just one of 50 potted biographies in the wonderfully entertaining and educational book "What Would Boudicca Do" by E. Foley & B. Coates.
After reading about these two lifelong friends, I just had to find out more about their lives and how they became the first women to win medals for Australia at the Stockholm Summer Olympics of 1912.
Mina Wylie was born on 27th June 1891 and grew up in the town of South Coogie, Sydney, Australia. Her father, Henry Alexander Wylie was a champion long-distance and underwater swimmer, who, in 1907, built and managed Wylie's Baths, which was a large outdoor tidal swimming pool. At this time in history, mixed sex bathing was not allowed in most Australian swimming pools.
When Mina was just 5 years old, she joined her father's aquatic troupe, along with her two older brothers. Her unique, show stopping act was to swim with her hands and ankles tied, which required a tremendous amount of bravery and strength for a small child. Mina practiced her swimming relentlessly, and her training consisted of swimming half to three-quarters of a mile, every single day from September to April. Having her own pool also had it's advantages.
Fanny Durack, (pictured below) who was born on 27th October 1889 to Irish parents, won her first National title in 1906 as a schoolgirl, and was encouraged to join Mina in her training by her swimming coach, Mr. Wylie. The girls spent a lot of time together in the Wylie Bath's!
In 1909, Mina Wylie was among the first three women in Australia to be honoured with the Royal Life Saving Society’s award of merit. Mina and Fanny swam against each other in the Australian and New South Wales Swimming Championships during the 1910/11 season, and Mina was the winner of every race, with Fanny not close behind. Despite their competitive sporting rivalry, the two girls became very good friends out of the pool.
At the 1912 Summer Olympics in Stockholm Sweden, women's swimming events were being held for the very first time in history. Both Mina and Fanny desperately wanted to be able to take part and represent Australia, as between them, they held many of the regional & National records.
At first, they were refused permission to go by the New South Wales Ladies Swimming Association. The President, Rose Scott, an ardent suffragist, was against female swimmers competing in their swimming costumes in front of men. The swimsuits reached down to the mid-thigh, although some were sleeveless, but Scott thought that men could not control themselves physically around young women who were wearing them. Scott resigned from her post when the local Mayor disagreed with her.
The Australian Olympic Committee were also initially against the girls competing, but Mina and Fanny were eventually allowed to go to the Olympics, provided they took chaperones and paid all of their own expenses. Fanny, Mina and their parents didn't have anywhere near the ammount of money needed to cover the costs themselves, but when news got out, donations came flooding in left, right and centre, from the general public and from various fundraising drives organized by their families, friends and supporters. Mina's father was the official coach, her sister was the chaperone, and the small group of four made up the very first Female Australian Swimming team to ever compete at an Olympic Games.
Durack set a new world record in the heats of the 100-metre freestyle and then went on to win the final, becoming the very first Australian woman to win an Olympic gold medal in a swimming event. Mina was right behind her, winning the silver medal and both friends were able to stand on the podium side by side, as Australia's first female swimmers to ever win Gold and Silver medals.
The only other event for women swimmers was the 4 x 100-metres relay; both Australian women offered to swim two legs each in order to compete as a team, but permission was refused.
Olympic success led to European and American tours for Fanny and Mina, but there were controversial incidents in their careers - but through it all they stuck together as pals. 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.
A week before the Australian team left for the 1920 Antwerp Olympics in May 1920, Durack was diagnosed with appendicitis and had to have emergency surgery. This was followed by typhoid fever and pneumonia and sadly she was unable to participate at the Games.
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 was made a life member of the New South Wales Women's Amateur Swimming Association in 1945.
She remained good friends with Mina Wylie for the rest of her life
From 1928 to 1970 Mina Wylie taught swimming at the Presbyterian Ladies’ College, Pymble. In 1975 she was elected to the International Swimming Hall of Fame. She never married and lived most of her life in the family home at Coogee.
Fanny died of cancer at her home at Stanmore on 20 March 1956 and was buried in the Catholic section of Waverley cemetery.
Mina died on 6 July 1984 at Randwick and was buried in the Church of England section of the local cemetery.
The Sheila's TV Show recorded a YouTube episode entirely devoted to Fanny Durak, taking a humorous look at the struggles that she and her friend Mina came up against during their careers - and outlining their amazing, trailblazing Olympic achievements. (*Explicit Language Warning*)
Further Reading and Links