Canadian Swimming History

Best Ever Canadians


Jack Kelso

As we approach the turn of the century and look into an exciting new millenium, it is time to reflect, recognize, and take pride in our outstanding swimmers of the past one hundred years. Incidentally, there was competitive swimming in Canada during all of this period, with races starting as early as the 1880s in Toronto and Montreal.

At the London Olympics in 1908, Robert Zimmerman of Montreal (representing the Montreal Swimming Club) was selected to compete in both swimming and diving for Canada. He was our first Olympic swimmer, and although he didn't reach any finals, he was a strong competitor. He also competed in the diving events - this was the only time in our Games history that we had an athlete who competed in both sports at an Olympics, or any other Games for that matter! Zimmerman was also an accomplished water polo player.

Our first claim to fame in the swimming world was in 1912 when George Hodgson of the Montreal A.A.A. swam for Canada at the Stockholm Olympics and won both the 400 metres and 1500 metres freestyle events. He not only won these two events, but established world records in them, records that stood for several years. The pool where Hodgson won his double golds was specially built in the Stockholm harbour, 100 metres in length, with a white sand bottom for visual clarity. There were no racing float lanes, no markings on the deck or sandy bottom, and no flags. The salt water was cold (55-60 F), lacking chemicals, filtration or heating, and subject to changes every hour. There would have been the occasional collision among the competitors, especially in the shorter sprint races, but luckily most swimmers kept their heads up during freestyle and breaststroke. Bob Zimmerman also competed in 1912, but he performed as a diver only. He placed fifth in the High Diving event.

George Vernot from Montreal was our next Olympic medallist. He was successful in winning a silver and a bronze in the 1500 and 400 metres Freestyle events, respectively, at the Antwerp Games in 1920. George Hodgson also competed in the 1920 Games, but was unable to place in the finals.

The first time women were allowed to compete in the Olympics was in 1912, but Canada did not see fit to send women to the Games until the Amsterdam Games of 1928. Our first female competitor was Dorothy Prior of Toronto. She competed in Amsterdam in the 200 metres Breaststroke, placing fourth in her heat and unable to qualify for finals. The only medal won by the men at these Olympics was a bronze in the 4 x 200 Freestyle Relay. The swimmers on this relay team were Munroe Bourne, Jimmy Thompson, Garnet Ault, and Walter Spence. This would be the last Olympic medal won by Canadian swimmers until the Mexico City Games forty years later!

Canada competed in all of the international games throughout the century, with the exception of the boycotted Moscow Olympics in 1980, and the inaugural Pan American Games in 1951. We did have reasonably strong teams in the first British Empire Games (later called the Commonwealth Games) series of the 1930s (1930-34-38), and began competing in the Pan American Games in 1955. The first World Long Course Championships were held in Belgrade, Yugoslavia in 1973, and Canada sent a strong team to this important competition.

These four major international championships (Worlds, Olympics, Commonwealths, and Pan Ams) were used to determine our best overall international performers for the Twentieth Century.

The results indicate a surprising parity between the men and the women, with the women winning a total of 130 medals, and the men gaining 127. The men's top medal winners, based on numbers alone, were Ralph Hutton and Sandy Gilchrist, both originating from the very unique and strong Ocean Falls A.S.C., with 24 and 16, respectively. For the women, there are two performers with 17 medals each: Joanne Malar (who is still very active on the international scene) and Cheryl Gibson. The more important statistic, however, shows that our top two women were Elaine Tanner (known as Mighty Mouse) and Anne Ottenbrite. Both of these great athletes won medals at the Olympic Games. For the men, Victor Davis and Alex Baumann have been our best performers overall. They are both Olympic champions, and they both won coveted World Championship medals. These four individuals have set the standard for the rest of Canada's swimmers, and hopefully, the next 100 years of competition will see a tenfold increase of these gold medal performances!

We have had a very good 100 years, and if one compares these medal wins with all other Canadian international sports, there is no doubt that the swimmers reign supreme. There were many international Games where Canada competed, and it was the swimmers who consistently won the majority of the medals. We have much to be proud of and many exciting years ahead of us as we look forward to the next 100 years of racing. Congratulations to these top swimming stars of the Twentieth Century.