Anita Lonsbrough is a rarity: someone who has won Olympic gold, been voted the Sportswoman of the Year (twice), and then gone on to join the SJA.
The long-time swimming correspondent of the Sunday and later the Daily Telegraph and BBC Radio pundit, recently celebrated a truly golden anniversary. ROGER GUTTRIDGE interviewed her
The stories behind it are legendary – cockroach clearance at the training pool, nail-painting before the final, the visible nerves of main rival Wiltrud Urselmann, the fly that decided to land in her lane before the start. But beyond the tabloid colour, Anita Lonsbrough’s victory in the Olympic 200 metres breaststroke in 1960 remains not only one of the greatest moments in British swimming history but one of the most brilliant tactically.
“I knew that if I attempted to go out with Urselmann, I would just blow up because I didn’t have her speed,” Anita recalls 50 years later. “I swam my own first half of the race. I had planned to try and catch her on the third length and pass her on the fourth. It went according to plan but not quite as quickly as I had hoped. Unusually she came back at me in the closing stages but I managed to win by half-a-bodylength.”
In doing so, the 19-year-old from Yorkshire not only regained the world record but became the first female breaststroker to go under 2min 50sec.
Her gold medal was one of only two won by the British team in Rome, the other going to Don Thompson in the 50-kilometre walk.
Anita’s success made her a household name. She was made an MBE soon after and was voted Sportswoman of the Year twice and BBC Sports Personality of the Year in 1962, the year in which she won three gold medals and a silver at the British Empire and Commonwealth Games and gold, silver and bronze at the European championships.
She also carried the British flag at the 1964 Games in Tokyo, a trip during which she also met the future world cycling pursuit champion Hugh Porter, who was eventually to become her husband. They live in Hugh’s home town of Wolverhampton in a house called Roma, which was also where he won the first of his four world cycling pursuit titles. Both have enjoyed long careers as sports journalists and commentators.
Anita, who has regularly returned to the scene of her triumph to report Rome’s annual Seven Hills Meet as well as last year’s world championships, remained the “last British woman to win an Olympic swimming gold” for 48 years until Rebecca Adlington added her name to swimming history in Beijing in 2008 – an occasion that the star of 1960 was also there to witness.
It’s all a world away from the day in 1957 when the 15-year-old freestyler unexpectedly – and fatefully – found herself in the 100yds breaststroke at the Bradford schools championships. “I had entered for the freestyle, backstroke and fly but there was no one else in the fly so that was cancelled and I swam the breaststroke instead,” she says. She won it and went on to win the Yorkshire, Division 3 and England Schools’ titles.
The following year, still hoping to be a freestyler, she entered the 440yds free and 220yds breast at the Commonwealth trials. She qualified only on the breaststroke and went on to win the Commonwealth title and a second gold in the medley relay in Cardiff followed by a silver in the 200m breaststroke at the European championships in Budapest.
By now she was working as a clerk in the motor taxation office at Huddersfield and training, often on her own, at the town’s Cambridge Road Baths, where she had to wait for the boilerman to open up in the morning, then kill a few cockroaches before starting her swim, returning later to swim in her lunchbreak or in the evening. She was clearly a girl on a mission and was also known for her calmness under pressure, a characteristic that was to come into its own on that hot summer’s day in Rome in 1960.
“Urselmann was the world record-holder and the favourite, which suited me. I qualified second fastest from the heats, which again I felt took the pressure off.”
While some of her rivals no doubt had a sleepless night, Anita cleverly found a spare room away from the other swimmers and slept soundly for 12 hours. “If I slept well, I swam well,” she recalls. And while others presumably were biting their nails, she whiled away the day by famously painting hers. “It sounds a bit girly but I painted them a nice shade of pink.”
The greatest test of calmness, though, came in the call-room below the pool, where the finalists were detained for 10 minutes longer than expected due to a dispute over the previous event. The pressure was clearly getting to Urselmann, who was pacing back and forth. “I remember thinking that she was wasting a lot of energy,” Anita says.
Oddly, it was a humble insect that caused the Briton the greatest concern. “There was a fly in my lane and I was worried that I was going to swallow it.”
Less than three minutes later, as her mother, an aunt and a cousin looked on, Anita was the Olympic champion. “There were no tears, which isn’t like me. I was in a daze. I just went numb.”
But her life would never be the same again.
This is an edited version of an article which first appeared in Swimming Times, and is reproduced here with permission from the magazine and British Swimming