IT'S NOT often you get to sit opposite a former Olympian, much less one who is regarded as one of the finest female sprint swimmers the world has ever seen.
While a lot of Malaysians today would not have witnessed her greatness first-hand, one can definitely appreciate and respect the history and legacy of Aussie Dawn Fraser.
She became a great symbol for Australian swimming, and undoubtedly paved the way for fellow Aussie swimmers Ian Thorpe, Grant Hackett, Kieren Perkins, Libby Trickett, Liesel Jones and later Stephanie Rice.
Today, Fraser is still only one of three swimmers to have ever won the gold in the same event at three separate Olympics. She won the women’s 100m freestyle in Melbourne (1956), Rome (1960) and Tokyo (1964).
Her all-time Olympic medal count of eight medals – four golds and four silvers is second only to Thorpe's nine medals (5-3-1).
Not bad for a 76-year-old grandmother who claims she’s “looking at trying to retire, but unfortunately I can’t at the moment”.
Fraser currently serves as the director of the National Roads and Motorists’ Association in Australia and also does a host of guest speaking spots, mentoring young swimmers and indulging in a bit of swimming and jet-skiing with her grandson in her down time.
Having gone at it for 15 years, Fraser still gets a buzz when the topic turns to swimming. Her eyes lit up at the mention of American swimmer Missy Franklin.
“I think Missy Franklin has a lot of talent and a beautiful personality to go with it,” says Fraser, who was in Kuala Lumpur last month for the Laureus World Sports Awards.
Fraser thinks Franklin could be just as good as her American predecessors Mark Spitz and Michael Phelps.
Spitz was the only swimmer to win seven gold medals at a single Olympics in Munich in 1972, a record that was only broken 36 years later by Phelps (eight gold medals) at the Beijing Games in 2008.
“She has her head screwed on the right way, taking time to swim at college. I think that was a very good idea because she’ll only be 21 by the next Games in Rio and she’ll turn professional then,” adds Fraser.
“She’s planned it well, which is very good. I was a planner too. I planned my four years between the Olympics Games very carefully and each year I had my goal that I wanted to achieve and I set my mind to it.”
Australian swimming seems to have suffered a dip after the noughties, but Fraser believes being an island has been the root of success for Australia, and something that will continue to help churn out more swimming stars in years to come.
“We’re an island surrounded by water so almost all our children learn to swim, so there’s always been a very strong, natural love for the water. Because we’re such a big island, it doesn’t matter where you go, there’s water ... so it’s a necessity (to be able to swim),” says Fraser.
One bright spark for Australia is the up-and-coming Cate Campbell.
“I think she is going to be impressive this year. She’s been swimming very fast, very well and she’s been training very hard, and hasn’t had any injuries. She's swimming in the Glasgow Commonwealth Games (July), so I think the Games will prove that Australia’s coming back to the fore,” says Fraser.
Despite her full schedule, Fraser does keep up with the swimming news, and not just confined to Australians either.
She has taken note of Malaysia’s 16-year-old Yap Siew Hui who broke two records en route to winning seven golds, losing out on an eighth when she took silver in the 200m freestyle at the recent MSSM (national schools) meet.
“I think you’ve got some good swimmers coming up as well. I’ve been reading some news reports of (Yap) Siew Hui at a schools meet (MSSM). She seems to be doing rather well after coming back from dengue. She’s just got to remember to keep at it and to never lose focus. The important thing is to always keep developing swimmers at every level and constantly having more and more swimmers come up the ranks. That’s the best way to keep going.”
Naturally, Fraser has lots of advice to offer. She calls the four years between every Olympic cycle as “absolutely huge” and says the secret to success simply lies in planning.
Here are her top three tips for swimmers and budding Olympians:
Get a stepladder
“Set aside specific targets you’d like to achieve and stay on them. Don’t lose focus. My coach (Harry) Gallagher taught me to always plan my swims a week out. So when I came into my race, I knew exactly how I was going to swim. And I’ve got nerves of course, but I set my plan and swam with it.”
Don’t rush, it will all fall into place
“Things like dealing with nerves and pressure and being in a boisterous environment of a cheering crowd, you can learn how to take it in. Mental strength also comes much later. It doesn’t come straight away. It’s something that you teach yourself gradually.”
“I find that having a quick nap before a race helps. We call them nanny naps (laughs). It sets you on the right path, almost like getting everything in order. I think that’s what keeps you healthy.”