Passing of an Australian Swimming Legend
Jan 6, 2002 - Ian Hanson and Paul Quinlan
PHILOMENA "BONNIE" MEALING (1912-2002)
Champion swimmer, Philomena "Bonnie" Mealing, the last surviving medallist of the Australian 1932 Los Angeles Olympic team, will be buried where she was married at St Brigid's, Coogee, in Sydney's eastern suburbs, tomorrow (Monday 7 Jan) at 10.30am.
"Bonnie" Mealing was born on the 28th of July 1912 - one of seven children and died aged 89 on New Year's Day, 2002 after a short illness. She is survived by her two children Fraser and Denise.
The Woolloomooloo born and bred Mealing was also the last survivor of Australia's 1928 Olympic team to Amsterdam - a team which included the great Andrew "Boy" Charlton.
"Bonnie" was one of a few select Australian women swimmers who won an Olympic medal in the pre-World War II era.
Legendary Olympian and one of Australia's greatest all-round sportsmen, Reginald "Snowy" Baker, writing in the leading sports paper of the day, described Mealing's style in 1932 as being "effortless backstroke".
"Never have the critics seen a swimmer with perfect balance, cleaner leg work or more scientific arm action, both in drive and recovery, " wrote "Snowy".
A style which Bonnie mastered with her sisters first at Woolloomooloo Baths and then at Coogee, where the Mealing family and particularly the girls became synonymous with the sport of swimming.
Selected to compete in the Amsterdam Olympics, she had less than a year's experience in top-class swimming before she went into the Games of 1928.
The team sailed from Sydney on the RMS Naldera in a team consisting of 14 men and four women, Edie Robinson (athletics), Edna Davy, Dorothy Thompson and Bonnie Mealing, all from the sport of swimming.
They had more than six weeks at sea with very little opportunity to train and she finished third in her heat of the 100m freestyle and fourth in her heat of the 100m backstroke.
She returned home to break the world record for 100m backstroke in February 1930 with a time of 1 min 20.6 sec which should have earned her a spot on the team for the inaugural Empire Games held in Hamilton, Canada, that year but what was considered as a blatant case of sexism, the selectors only chose two male swimmers.
By the time the Los Angeles Olympics came around in 1932, the controversial swimmer, Eleanor Holm, who was banned from the 1936 Olympics, had emerged and was the leading backstroke swimmer in the world.
Holm went on to win the 100m event in LA while the persistent and graceful Mealing won silver, one of only five medals won by Australia at those Games - the others went to Dunc Gray (cycling), Bobby Pearce (rowing) and Clare Dennis (swimming) who all won gold and wrestler Eddie Scarf who won bronze.
Mealing set another world mark, this time for the 200m distance, in 1933 but dropped out of swimming shortly afterwards. Had she continued she would have probably been crowned the Empire champion at the London Games held in 1934.