Murray Rose: Swimmer who inspired generations

 

The Melbourne Olympics of 1956 launched the glory days of Australian sport, and the biggest stars of those Games were Betty Cuthbert, the golden girl on the track, and Murray Rose, the golden boy in the pool.

Rose, who has died aged 73, was just 17, tall, golden-haired andimpressively handsome when he became the youngest Olympian to win three gold medals; he and Dawn Fraser led the Australians to 14 swimming medals, eight of them gold, and knocked the powerful American team into second place.

They nearly did it again in Rome four years later, as Rose became the first man to repeat as gold medallist at 400 metres, although his team-mate John Konrads forced him into second at 1500 and they managed only bronze in the freestyle relay. As the number of swimming events increased, Australia struggled to keep pace with the Americans, but they finished a strong second in each of the next three Olympic Games before the rise of the eastern European nations eclipsed them.

Australia's golden boy was actually British. Murray Rose was born in 1939 in Nairn, Scotland, but his parents emigrated to Australia to escape the coming war. Rose grew up swimming inSydney's Double Bay, and by the time John Marshall was thrilling Australia with a freestyle gold at the 1948 London Olympics, he was already being coached by Sam Herford, who taught him a distinctive stroke with a rest during his breaths, which proved ideal for distance swimming.

At 13 Rose was training with the Olympic team. He won his first Australian championship at 15 and broke Marshall's 880-yard world record at 16. At Melbourne Rose set a world record in the 400 free, won the 1500 and swam the third leg on the 800 metre freestyle relay team that also broke a world mark. During the Games he received special dispensation to leave the Olympic village and eat with his parents, who were vegetarians; his vegan diet saw him nicknamed "The Seaweed Streak".

Rose missed the 1958 Commonwealth Games, having enrolled at the University of Southern California to swim under the coach Peter Deland and study acting. He hoped to follow Olympic swimmers Johnny Weismuller and Buster Crabbe to Hollywood stardom. His swimming was more successful; he won three collegiate titles in 1961, and two more in 1962, as USC battled a powerful Yale team led by Don Schollander and Steve Clark.

He followed that with four golds at the 1962 Commonwealth Games in Perth. His acting career was less spectacular, but cost him a chance to take a record third straight gold in Rome.His first film role was as a surfer in the 1964 teen film Ride The Wild Surf, starring Tab Hunter and Fabian. Acting commitments left him unable to attend the Australian Championships, which excluded him from the official Olympic trials. Rose tried to convince the selectors to allow him into the trials by setting a world record at 1650 yards at the US Championships, and winning three events and setting his 17th and last world mark in a special solo 880 yards at the Canadian Championships, but they would not be budged.

His second film role, in Ice Station Zebra (1968) proved to be his last, but he remained in the US for another 20 years, working in marketing, as a commentator for television, and picking up the occasional TV acting job. He was instrumental in the growth of Masters swimming; the race against his old rival Lance Larson in 1981 attracted national publicity.

After marrying his second wife, the dancer Jodi Wintz, he returned to Australia in 1988, where he was active with the Rainbow Club, a charity encouraging disabled children to swim. He became an inspiration to a new generation of Australian swimmers – he was one of the flag-bearers at the Sydney Olympics in 2000, where, following the demise of the Eastern Bloc, and with events limited to two swimmers per country, Ian Thorpe led Australia back into second on the medals table behind the US, a position they have maintained in the last two Games.

Rose became a member of the Order of Australia in 2000, and received the Australian Sports Medal the same year and the Centenary award in 2001. He was diagnosed with leukaemia last December. His Australian and USC team-mate Konrad gave him Australia's highest accolade, saying, "he was one of the greatest swimmers of all time – and a great mate".

Murray Rose, swimmer, actor and broadcaster: born Nairn, Scotland 6 January 1939; married firstly (one daughter), secondly Jodi Wintz (one son); died Sydney 15 April 2012

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