Dawn Fraser, AC, MBE (born 4 September 1937) is an Australian freestyle champion swimmer and former politician. She is one of only three swimmers to have won the same Olympic individual event three times – in her case the women’s 100-metre freestyle.
Within Australia, she is often known for her controversial behaviour and larrikin character as much as for her athletic ability.
Fraser was born in the Sydney suburb of Balmain, New South Wales in 1937 into a poor working-class family, the youngest of eight children. Her father, Kenneth Fraser, was from Embo, Scotland. She was spotted at the early age of 14 by Sydney coach Harry Gallagher swimming at the local sea baths.
Fraser won eight Olympic medals, including four gold medals, and six Commonwealth Games gold medals. She also held 39 records. The 100 metres freestyle record was hers for 15 years from 1 December 1956 to 8 January 1972.
She is the first of only three swimmers in Olympic history (Krisztina Egerszegi of Hungary and Michael Phelps of the United States being the two others) to have won individual gold medals for the same event at three successive Olympics (100 metres freestyle – 1956, 1960, 1964).
In October 1962, she became the first woman to swim 100 metres freestyle in less than one minute. It was not until 1972, eight years after Fraser retired, that her 100m record of 58.9 secs was broken.
Several weeks before the 1964 Olympics, Fraser was injured in a car crash that resulted in the death of her mother Rose. Her sister and a friend were also travelling in Fraser’s car when it crashed, but they survived. This was a fresh tragedy for Fraser and her family following her older brother’s death from leukemia in 1950, and her father died after a long battle against cancer in 1960.
During the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, Fraser angered swimming team sponsors and the Australian Swimming Union (ASU) by marching in the opening ceremony against their wishes, and wearing an older swimming costume in competition, as she found it more comfortable than the one supplied by the sponsors. She was accused of stealing an Olympic flag from a flagpole outside Emperor Hirohito’s palace, the Kōkyo. She was arrested but released without charge. In the end she was given the flag as a souvenir. However, the Australian Swimming Union suspended her for 10 years. They relented a few months before the 1968 Games but by then it was too late for Fraser, at 31, to prepare. She later denied having swum the moat to steal the flag, telling The Times in 1991: “There’s no way I would have swum that moat. I was terrified of dirty water and that moat was filthy. There’s no way I’d have dipped my toe in it.”
Fraser became a publican at the Riverview Hotel, Balmain, and took up swimming coaching. In 1988, she was elected as an independent to the New South Wales Legislative Assembly for the seat of Balmain. That electorate was abolished in 1991, and after she failed to win the new seat of Port Jackson, she retired from politics. Fraser is a high-profile supporter and a board director of the Wests Tigers NRL club.
She was named the Australian of the Year in 1964, was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame in 1965, was made a Member of the Order of the British Empire in 1967, and appointed an Officer of the Order of Australia (AO) in 1998. Also in 1998, she was voted Australia’s greatest female athlete in history. She was named Australian Female Athlete of the Century by the Sport Australia Hall of Fame, who had inducted her as their first female member in 1985. In 1999 the International Olympic Committee named her the World’s Greatest Living Female Water Sports Champion. on 14 July 2000, Fraser was awarded the Australian Sports Medal for “outstanding contribution as a swimming competitor”.
She was one of the bearers of the Olympic Torch at the opening ceremony of the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney. She carried the Olympic Torch at the stadium, as one of the bearers for the final segment, before the lighting of the Olympic Flame.
The Australian Sport Awards includes an award named in honour of and presented by Fraser. The sea baths in Balmain where she swam were named the Dawn Fraser Swimming Pool in her honour in 1964, and in 1992, the State Transit Authority named a RiverCat ferry after Fraser.
As part of the 2018 Queen’s Birthday Honours she was advanced to a Companion of the Order of Australia (AC).
In 1979, a movie called Dawn! was made about Fraser’s life and career. It starred Bronwyn Mackay-Payne as Fraser.
Fraser was played by Melissa Thomas in the 2003 film Swimming Upstream. Fraser herself is credited in the film as Dawn Fraser’s coach. On 1 September 2015, Dawn Fraser featured on Season 7, Episode 5 of the SBS genealogy television series Who Do You Think You Are?, which traced her heritage back to South America.
Fraser married Gary Ware on 30 January 1965 at St Stephens Church, Macquarie Street, Sydney. The marriage was short-lived. She has one daughter from the marriage, Dawn-Lorraine, who has a son, Jackson. Dawn Fraser suffered from severe asthma.
Fraser has drawn negative criticism for public comments in 1997 when she said “I’m sick and tired of the immigrants that are coming into my country” and in 2015 when she told Australian tennis players Nick Kyrgios and Bernard Tomic to “go back to where their fathers or parents came from”. “I’ve always spoken the truth,” Fraser said. “It was the way I was brought up, to be honest and to tell the truth.” These views have been described as racist. She subsequently apologised.
|1956 Summer Olympics|
|4 × 100 m Freestyle Relay||4:17.1||Gold||WR|
|1960 Summer Olympics|
|4 × 100 m Freestyle Relay||4:11.3||Silver|
|4 × 100 m Medley Relay||4:45.9||Silver|
|1964 Summer Olympics|
|4 × 100 m Freestyle Relay||4:06.9||Silver|
|4 × 100 m Medley Relay||4:52.3||9th|
1962 Perth Commonwealth Games
- 110 yards freestyle – gold medal
- 440 yards freestyle – gold medal
- 4 x 110 yards (4 x 100.58 metres) freestyle relay – gold medal
- 4 x 110 yards (4 x 100.58 metres) medley relay – gold medal