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The opposite of Australian swimming hubris


Murray Rose, Spit BathsTravelling by road in Sydney from the city to the beachside suburb of Manly, after you have passed through Neutral Bay and Cremorne and Spit Junction, the road winds its way down to a sparkling Middle Harbour and the Spit Bridge.

If it was 1956, just after the Melbourne Olympics, and if you stopped at the bottom of the hill, where the trams disappear up Parriwi Road, and if you turned right and walked under the dark and putrescent Moreton Bay Figs, you would see ahead the flaking weatherboard sheds of the Spit Baths.

You would see children in their swimmers and sandals, with zinc cream on their noses and towels curled on their heads like Beau Geste, dawdling along.

At the entrance to the baths you put a penny into a turn-style and lean your skinny body against the cold steel gate to push your way in. And suddenly you are back in the dazzling light of the morning sun.

Your first thoughts are of food, because you can smell the fantales and cobbers, freckles, liquorices and other sweets (two a penny) set out in a latticework of wooden containers on the kiosk counter, beside the turn-styles.

You can run your hands through the sweets. Nobody is watching. The kiosk is unattended. And as you look at the sweets you notice something shining, golden, among them; and something shining silver.

There are at least four gold medals there, and at least one silver, and more. You can pick them up, feel their weight. Smell them. You could walk off with them if you wanted to. There are no signs, no fanfares. It's not a big deal. No security guard, no advertising, no stardom, no rip off.

These are the medals that our Spit Swimming Club members won at the Melbourne Olympics. It helps that two of our members are Murray Rose (pictured) and John Devitt, who are coached by the manager of the Baths, Sam Herford. But we are all coached by Sam Herford. He taught us to swim. Not that there are very many of us.

The Spit Baths consist of two swimming areas bounded by boardwalks built on piles sunk into Middle Harbour. During the summer king tides, the water rises above the level of the decking. At low tide, however, there is barely enough water to swim in.

You can see John Devitt doing time trials in just a few feet of water. There is no black line on a sterile tiled floor here, just sand and seaweed. Starts and turns are made off crudely raised and lowered wooden frames.

Half way down the pool a wooden set of steps intrudes into the only viable swimming lane, and you hold your breath as John Devitt swims past, for he does a lap without breathing, and you wonder if he can see where he is and if he might break his hand against the steps and never swim again.

We swim laps, do jelly rolls and bombs and horse dives off the diving board, and lie in the sun on the boardwalk, smelling of salt. We buy freshly scooped ice-cream in a cone, dipped in hundreds and thousands, and walk our long slow way back up the hill to Seaforth with the ice-cream smelling of vanilla and melting down our hands.

I was ten. It was just another day.


Murray Rose won four Olympic gold medals, one silver and one bronze, and held the world record for the 400, 800 and 1500 meters freestyle. He died in April 2012. A good man. John Devitt won two Olympic gold medals, one silver and one bronze, and held the world record for 100 meters freestyle.

John HonnerJohn Honner won a blue and gold propelling pencil for coming third in the Spit Baths under ten handicap. 

Topic tags: John Honner, Murray Rose, John Devitt, Olympics



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Existing comments

Wow. This took me back John! Sam Herford taught me to swim after school when I was 12 (!) at Redleaf Pool, while he watched over Murray Rose (aged 12) swimming laps. (Murray lived in the flats alongside Redleaf.) Sam was also training my best friend Jeannie. With Murray's friend Doggie Taylor, we swam at The Spit on Saturday afternoons, and learned to body surf (ie got dumped) at Bondi on Sundays). That photo os The Spit baths at low tide reminds me how scary it was dive in from a great height!

Jill Kitson | 01 August 2012  

Ah nostalgia! I remember the Olympic Village in Heidelberg West in 1956. I remember the athletes, both Australian and foreign, attending dances in the local parish hall. They were just like us teenagers, maybe a wee bit older, stronger, faster, but fundamentally just like us with a little extra gift of speed or strength or skill. And many of them went to church. It was just something we all did on a Sunday morning. Ah nostalgia! Have we lost our innocence in a mere fifty six years?

Uncle Pat | 01 August 2012  

Yes, this is the Australia I remember when I arrived in 1958 to the sight of water like nothing I'd ever seen. And I marvelled at the fact that most Australians of whatever age swam, or belted a ball around, or ran up and down chasing balls on a field, and never limited themselves to watching. Now it is so much like the America I left all those years ago - high paying spectator sports and a lot of overweight people that you never saw then.

Sara Dowse | 01 August 2012  

Love this article. I can see/smell and feel sydney as though I was a kid again. I'm reading Falconer's Sydney at the mo so this is a nice accompaniment.

Annerliegh Pappos | 01 August 2012  

Northbridge baths was my place. We were never bored in the Christmas Holidays. It took us an hour or so to walk to the baths and probably more to get home, stopping at each family's home for some sustenance. We followed the newspaper closely and varied our visits according to the tide. We were very blessed.

Margaret McDonald | 01 August 2012  

Great article! I know nothing of the time but I loved reading this.

Moira | 01 August 2012  

Great memories of the Spit Baths. As boys at Marist Brothers Mosman we would come down to the baths on a Thursday for our weekly sports day. Thanks for the memories.

Anthony Smith | 02 August 2012  

Gee, I really love this article. Takes me back 56 years, when I learned to swim, then trained like mad at Manly Baths, much the same as the The Spit. What great memories. Rose, Henricks, Chapman, Crapp - they were all my heroes. That's right Sara, no overweight people. And no theft; no showing off; no money. Just eager, energetic, naive kids. Thanks John for the memories.

Louw | 06 August 2012  

thanks john for the beaut memories . i just about grew up there a bit before you . my grandmother worked the then turnstile and little shop for many years . it used to have a diving tower ,and us kids were forever in trouble for jumping of it . ah to go back to those beautiful days .thanks for the memories , cheers , ray .

ray faunce | 08 January 2015  

So many people I have come across over the years have such fond memories of my father and mother and spending their summer holidays at The Spit, it was my home my backyard.
Some details in John's memory are incorrect,maybe some poetic licence.One example neither the front desk nor the kiosk were left unattended,Being a family concern, both my brother Gary and I had to do our share tending both areas.
Ray Faunce's memories of his time there and his grandmother who also tended the entrance for many years, we fondly called her "Fauncie"
The Spit Swimming Club is celebrating the Spit Baths' 100th anniversary next year 2016.
What a great childhood,fondly shared with so many. Kim Herford.

Kim Herford | 30 May 2015  

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