A Life Changing Day in Olympic History: When Dawn Fraser met Harry Gallagher And The Rest As They Say Is History

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WHERE HARRY MET DAWN: Formerly Elkington Park Baths that became Dawn Fraser Pool.Photo Courtesy Sydney Images.

Dawn Fraser is an Australian Olympic icon. A four-time Olympic swimming gold medallist from 1956, 1960 and 1964.

She rose from a scallywag (In Australian parlance: A person, typically a child, who behaves badly but in an amusingly mischievous rather than harmful way; a rascal) from the back streets of Balmain into an Olympic swimming great.

And all thanks to one man – coaching giant Harry Gallagher –who died last week aged 96 – the man Dawn referred to respectfully for over 80 years as either Mr Gallagher or Coach – right up until his final lap.

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WHAT A TEAM: Coach Harry Gallagher and his golden girl Dawn Fraser. Together till the end. Photo Courtesy: Hanson Media.

Fraser joined Gallagher’s family – and former swimmers, Olympians, coaches and friends to celebrate “Harry’s extraordinary life” on the Gold Coast on Saturday.

The stories flowed as freely as the tears and hugs with Harry’s wife Jan and their sons Kym and Sean and daughter Heidi and Harry’s daughter Kerry, reflecting on the life and times of an extraordinary life of coaching, travelling, writing, story telling and his next big book idea – his love of fashion and enjoying life to the fullest –and “our next holiday.”

Fraser, her 1956 team mates Margaret Messenger (nee Gibson) and Jon Henricks and triple Olympian Lisa Curry told of the man who changed their lives – representative stories of so many great Australian swimmers and Olympians – young and old including Harry’s boys Kym and Sean – themselves swimmers – all mesmerised by Harry’s pool deck spells.

Henricks describing “the cunning Fox” as Australia’s greatest ever coach – a handle Fraser would also agree on.

But for Dawn their initial contact was like a scene out of a movie – and the script just kept getting better and better.

Here is Dawn’s tribute to Coach Gallagher delivered at his service – a reflection on that fateful day at the local pool that would become her own, when she met the man who would change her life.

“Mr Gallagher was the most impressionable man that I have ever met and he drove me and many others to peak performance throughout our lives,” Dawn told the assembled well wishers, as she stood proudly in the Nerang Chapel, delivering her tribute from an ipad – Harry’s coffin draped, fittingly in the Olympic flag.

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DAWN’S BACKYARD POOL: Where Dawn Fraser swam in her early years. Now a Sydney landmark. Photo Courtesy:Inner West Council.

“My first meeting with ‘coach’ was at the Ellington Park Baths (aka Balmain Baths and little did she know at the time but would eventually be christened the Dawn Fraser Pool) when I was 12 years of age.  

“My brother Donnie, Alick and I were members of the Leichhardt/Balmain League of Swimming and we raced on a Sunday morning in (Sydney’s) summer (months).

“It was a 73 and a 1/3 yard tidal baths on the Parramatta River and one day in the summer season there were a group of swimmers that had taken over our pool so my gang, ‘yes MY gang’, started bombing them from the diving board.

“My cousin Chut (who was assistant manager of the baths at the time) started to go mad on us and told us to leave them alone and that they were training for the (NSW) State Championships.

“We all got out of the water and proceeded to sit on the seats on the side of the pool – singing out to them ‘watch out (for) the eels and jellyfish…they’ll eat you.’

“This stranger then called Chut over to ask him who was that bossy girl and Chut told him that’s Dawn Fraser and that’s her gang and she’s the local club swimming champion.

“When the baths had closed for that evening I left the pool to go home and I walked up the 40 steps to my push bike and this same stranger who had disrupted my pool time, was sitting in his convertible car near my bike and said to me ‘why don’t you get a light for your bike?’

“in reply I said ‘why don’t you mind your own bloody business.’

“I started to ride home and he slowly followed me and when I got to my front gate he got out of his car and came over to me, saying that he would like to speak to my parents.

“In reply I said ‘best of bloody luck.’

“I then ran up the side lane to hang my togs on the (clothes) line as he walked up the front steps of my home and knocked on the front door 

“My Mother opened the door and asked him what he wanted and he said that he wanted to speak to Dawn’s Mum and Dad. Mum invited him into the lounge room and they all sat down and talked.

“After a while I was called into the lounge room thinking that I am not going to sit down for a week after the belting that I was going to get from Pop for being so rude to the coach’s team of swimmers

“(But) to my surprise Mr Gallagher was asking my parents could he coach me?

“Pop asked me if I would like to go and train in Drummoyne with Mr G.  

“Oh Pop. yes that would be fantastic 

 ‘Okay’ Mr G said ‘you start next Monday at 5am and get a light for that bike!

“I didn’t know what to expect on my first morning of training 

And when I saw all of those swimmers that I had got my gang to bomb and torment I was silently very embarrassed but Mr G made sure that we would all become Friends.

“But the most important thing was to be a very successful swim squad and no more bombing from me or my gang.

“I made friends with all of Mr Gallagher’s squad and they became my friends for the rest of my life – That’s what he taught us and once accepted it was go from there.

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PULSE RATE: Harry Gallagher and prized pupil Dawn Fraser. Photo Courtesy: Dawn Fraser Collection.

“Mr G. taught me a lot during my swimming career: How to enjoy training, what it meant to work hard, to be focused, how to become a team member but most of all how to always work out how to swim a race and how to enjoy life.

“He taught me to have good manners (sometimes very difficult for him) but we had lots of fun, laughs and good times.

“Teaching me how to address dignitaries and how to behave in a whole range of different situations that I might come across in my life. 

“Introducing me to some very famous people and gave me the opportunity to learn how to drive myself in any situation that I may encounter in my life. 

“And to art, water skiing, classical music and even allowing me to continue my love of horses, and to drive his car down to Adelaide  – Yes without a licence!   So then I was able to get it in South Australia.

“He showed me that swimming was going to be in my blood forever and that made me very hungry for rewards so whatever coach said we did – no questions asked.

“(I guess) my records prove just how good a coach he was – 41 world records; 4 Olympic gold medals ; 4 Olympic silver medals; and numerous amounts of British Empire-and Commonwealth Games, Australian & State Championship medals. 

“I called him coach or Mr Gallagher because over the years he showed me what respect meant and how to show respect and there is no one in the world I respect more than the man that has made me the woman I am and the success I achieved. 

“With out him seeing me that very special day in my life (at Elkington Baths) don’t know what I would have become

“Thank you Coach for everything! You have found your very own gold now…ENJOY your universe 

“Rest In Peace you have earned it” – Dawn.

 

4 comments

  1. avatar
    Anonymous

    Thank you for sharing. Dawn was an icon and an inspiration for swimmers around the world.

  2. avatar
    Birlan

    Very touching. Great story.

  3. avatar
    Anonymous

    Beautiful

  4. avatar
    James Nickoloff

    In 1998 while I was in Sydney for several months, I wrote a letter to Dawn Fraser, asking her (though I didn’t really think it would happen) if she might have time to meet up with a fan of hers, a former swimmer, and a teammate of one of her great swimming rivals (Sharon Stouder). She responded by calling me on the phone number I had included in the letter.

    “Hello, is Mr. Jim Nickoloff there.”
    “Yes, this is he.”
    “Well, this is SHE.”
    “She who?”
    “She Dawn Fraser.”

    I almost fell down. Of course she agreed to have lunch at one of her hang-outs in Balmain, and in response to my question about bringing a couple of friends along, she said, “Bring anyone you like.”

    It was a fantastic afternoon, she recounting every meter of the 100 free final in Tokyo (her third gold in a row in that event), and my two friends Brian and Grant reveling in the humor, wisdom, and beautiful humanity of Dawn Fraser. She is a real mensch. And if Harry Gallagher made her who she is, good on him!