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Murray Rose, Legend, Passes Away At 73

Apr 15, 2012  - Craig Lord


Murray Rose, legend of distance freestyle swimming, died today at the age of 73. He had been battling Leukaemia since Christmas. 

A sad loss to his family, Rose will be much missed in the world of swimming.  Born on January 6, 1939, he grew to be one of the all-time greats of his sport. His name will be among those commemorated as Olympic icons at renamed tube stations across the British capital this summer. 

Born to British parents in Nairn, on the coast of the Moray Firth at the foot of the Scottish Highlands, Rose emigrated with his family as a one-year-old and learned to swim in Double Bay, a fashionable Sydney resort with a shark-netted beach at the back door and an inspiring view of Sydney Harbour. 

Veteran and pioneering coach Forbes Carlile recalled: "I first saw Murray Rose, a slim, fair-headed boy from tthe Bondi Club standing on a starting block at the North Sydney Olympic Pool more than 60 years ago. Quietly spoken, reserved and caring, Murray, hero of the Melbourne Olympics, ranks with the greatest ever. His crawl stroke technique was a model, world over, for two generations of swimmers. Murray was a reserved, hugely respected caring person. Sad news. He'll be much missed."

In 1956, at 17, Rose became the face of the home Olympic Games in Melbourne a month before the Opening Ceremony when he clocked a world record of 17:59.5, becoming the first to race the 1,500m freestyle inside 18 minutes. 

Iain Murray Rose also went by the name “the Seaweed Streak”, courtesy of his specialised diet: no meat, fish, poultry, refined flour, sugar, chemical-infused foods, but plenty of seaweed, honey and wheat-germ. The Olympic canteen could not cater for Rose, and so his parents were allowed to take their son out for meals. 

On the radio programme You Bet Your Life hosted by Groucho Marx on March 17, 1958, Rose was asked what he attributed his three gold medals to. He told Marx that veganism was the answer.

The Rose family traces its origins back to Hugh de Ros, a baron whose name appears as a witness to the Charter of Beuly Priory in 1200. The Iain before the Murray takes a Gaelic spelling in honour of ancestors who fought for Prince Charles at the battle of Culloden Moor in 1746. The family has its own tartan, coat of arms and motto: "Constant and True".

In Melbourne, Rose, coached by Sam Herford, opened his Olympic account with a relay gold and world record (8:23.6) in the 4x200m alongside Kevin O’Halloran, John Devitt and John Hendricks.

The day after, he raced to an Olympic record of 4:27.3 over 400m, to become the first Australian to lift the eight-lap title, 3.1sec ahead of Japan’s Tsuyoshi Yamanaka, with American George Breen third. Not since Norman Ross in 1920 had a man won both distance freestyle crowns, while no one as young as Rose had ever won three gold medals in the Olympic pool. 

The tide seemed to turn against the Australian, however, when Breen sliced 6.6sec off the world record (17:52.9) over 30 laps in the third heat, two heats after Rose’s 18:04.1. In the final, thin air could hardly separate Rose, Breen and Yamanaka at 800m. Rose then built a lead of some five metres. With 100m to go, Yamanaka began to sprint. 

The crowd leapt to its feet, but Rose held on for a 17:58.9 victory over Yamanaka, on 18:00.3, and Breen, who took bronze in 18:08.2, completing a match of the 400m podium. Rose and Yamanaka would later become students at the University of California. 

Rose made history again at the 1960 Games in Rome, when he became the first man ever to retain a distance freestyle title, over 400m (4:18.3). Once again, Yamanaka took silver in 4:21.4, precisely the same 3.1sec gap between the two as there had been in 1956. 

In the 1,500m, Rose, Breen and Yamanaka placed next to each other, but Australian John Konrads, another of European (Latvian) parentage, got the better of them (17:19.6 to Rose’s 17:21.7 and Breen’s 17:30.6). 

In his career, Rose held all freestyle world records from 200m to 1,650yd, including six standards over 400m (3), 800m (1) and 1,500m (2). 

From Athens 1896 to Athens 2004, no man was able to win an Olympic crown in the pool at three successive Games, and if Johnny Weissmuller stopped Duke Kahanamoku in 1924 before an underwear contract and the call of Tarzan stopped Weissmuller himself in 1932, then the next nearly man was Iain Murray Rose, with bureaucracy the barrier to his tantalising tilt at the triple. 

His penultimate world record, of 17:01.8 at the US championships on August 2, 1964, failed to sway selectors after Rose opted not to travel home from America for trials. In his absence, the title went to his countryman Robert Windle in 17:01.7. 

Rose appeared at the Canadian Olympic Trials in Vancouver in 1964. They were  held in September and marked Rose's last shot at convincing the Aussie jury of the day. The meet, SwimNews founder Nick Thierry recalls, was in a 55-yard pool at the University of British Columbia, the pool that hosted the 1954 Commonwealth Games.

Rose won the 220, 2:01.90, 440, 4:16.60 and 1650, 17:14.10 and swam a special solo 880 record attempt. He was successful in the latter at least, his 8:55.50 the last world record ever set in the 880 yards before that yardstick was no longer recognised for global standards. Rose raced inside the 8:59.6 at which the record had been held by fellow Australian and long-time opponent, John Konrads. Yards records were no longer recognised after April 30, 1969.

An avenue at the Sydney Olympic complex was named in Rose's honour in 2000 and he was one of the eight flag-bearers of the Olympic Flag at the opening ceremony of the Sydney Games.

In his life beyond swimming, Rose, who spent 30 years living and working in the US, acted in the 1964 surf movie Ride the Wild Surf and in the 1968 drama Ice Station Zebra. He was the patron of the Australian charity "The Rainbow Club", which teaches disabled children how to swim.

Appointed a Member of the Order of Australia for services to swimming and granted the Australian Sports Medal in 2000, Rose was awarded the Centenary Medal in 2001.

Married to the former Jodi Wintz, a ballerina, choreographer and dance teacher and contest adjudicator, Rose is survived by his last wife, their son Trevor and daughter Somerset by a former marriage.

President of Swimming Australia David Urquhart described Rose's passing is a great loss for the sport. "The name Murray Rose is synonymous with success in the sport of swimming, and his achievements in Melbourne in 1956 will go down as the stuff of legend," he said. "Murray Rose is part of the Swimming DNA in this country. His success inspired a generation and our thoughts and prayers are with his family and close friends during this difficult time."

In a joint statement, Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard and the nation's Sports Minister Kate Lundy said Australia had lost one of its greatest Olympians.

"Murray was a true pioneer of Australian swimming and his impressive feats in the pool helped to shape Australia's destiny as a successful sporting nation.

"Murray will be remembered fondly as a sporting legend who inspired the next generations of elite athletes and helped to propel Australia's sporting success in future Olympics.

"There is no disputing that the Olympian was a champion in the pool, but Murray also made an immense contribution to the community through charity work and as patron of the The Rainbow Club which teaches children with a disability to swim."

Our thoughts are not only with this he leaves behind today but with the man who made his mark. Go well Murray Rose.