Fanny Durack’s swimming career is as notable for her athletic achievement as it is as a symbol of change in attitudes towards women in Australia during the start of the twentieth century. Only five years after Annette Kellerman was arrested at Revere Beach, Massachusetts, for indecency, Sarah ‘Fanny’ Durack and Wilhelmina ‘Mina’ Wylie became the centre of a public controversy over what constituted modesty and decency for women swimmers.
Sarah Frances Durack was born on 27 October 1889 to Thomas and Mary Durack.
Thomas was a publican in Leichhardt of Irish background who operated, amongst other hotels, the Newmarket Hotel in Campbell Street, Sydney. Regularly called by the nickname ‘Fanny’, she learned to swim breaststroke at Coogee. First at Mrs. Page's Coogee Baths, exclusively for girls and women, and then later at St. George Baths, Cleveland Street, Sydney. Running in the same circles, Durack inevitably met Wilhelmina ‘Mina’ Wylie. Wylie’s father, Henry Alexander Wylie, owned Wylie Baths, Coogee, and it was there that the two future Olympians came to perfect their sport.
Competitive swimming for women was in its infancy when Fanny Durack first took to the sport. Annette Kellerman opened the first wave of pos-sibilities with her international career. Durack quickly became adept at breaststroke, and in 1906, at the age of 17, she won her first title. Over the coming years she would come to dominate the female swimming scene. By 1908 she had taken up the Trudgen stroke to improve her times, and over 1910/1911 season she and Wylie came to perfect the front ‘Australian’ crawl style, an early variation of the stroke now often referred to as freestyle. Wylie won the 100 yard breast-stroke and 100 and 220 yard freestyle events, ahead of Durack, at the Australian Swimming Championships at Rose Bay.
Given her successes in amateur competitions, there was considerable public demand for Fanny Durack and Mina Wylie to go to the 1912 Olympic Games in Stockholm. This, however, was met with opposition from the Australian Olympic Committee and the New South Wales Ladies Swimming Association.