Tarpaulin training, swimming in canals, NZ's Walrond blazed trail

FILE PHOTO: Swimmer Violet Walrond poses for a picture during the 1920 Antwerp Olympics swimming event in Antwerp, Belgium, 1920. The New Zealand Olympic Committee/Handout via REUTERS

WELLINGTON (Reuters) - Violet Walrond overcame massive hurdles to become New Zealand's first female Olympian at the 1920 Olympics, but never really understood the significance of what she had done until late in her life, her nephew said.

The 15-year-old schoolgirl swimmer was the youngest of the 65 female athletes at the Antwerp Games, the first time New Zealand had its own team at the Olympics after being part of an Australasia team in 1908 and 1912.

The New Zealand team, made up of Walrond and three men, took nine weeks to get to Belgium, travelling by boat with stops in Australia and South Africa.

The stopovers were the only chance Violet had to train in a pool, although the ship's captain tried to help her out with a makeshift facility.

"The captain did try to make a pool out of tarpaulins and put water into it, but there was no way they could get it deep enough for her to swim in it," her nephew John Walrond told Reuters in a telephone interview.

"And the rocking of the boat just made the water spill out over the sides anyway."

They arrived just days before the Games began and Violet had few opportunities for training before she had to compete in the Olympic 'pool' -- a fenced off section of canal that had been part of Belgium's defences in World War One.

The pool had no lane markings and the murky, chilly waters did not make for a perfect swimming environment but she made the final of the 100 metres freestyle, finishing fifth behind American Ethelda Bleibtrey.

She also reached the final of the other women's individual event, the 300m freestyle, but obviously could not compete in the 4x100 relay.


Walrond said that while the teenage Violet did not really have any idea of what the Olympics were about -- "she thought it was just a big race" -- she was disappointed that her sister Edna had not made it to Antwerp as well.

"Edna was a champion diver (but) she couldn't go to the Olympics because there wasn't a diving board high enough in Auckland for her to practice on and make her competitive," Walrond said.

"Violet said when she watched them diving (in Antwerp), she felt that Edna was much better and would have won the gold for sure."

Walrond continued to swim competitively after Antwerp and was keen to go to Paris in 1924, but her father Cecil, who had been her chaperone and New Zealand's unofficial coach in 1920, decided that both she and Edna should stop competing.

Violet said later in life that her father felt they were getting too much publicity.

"Back in those days, you did what your father told you to do," said Walrond, whose father was Violet's brother.

Violet went on to raise a family in Auckland and only became aware of her impact as New Zealand's first female Olympian shortly before she died at the age of 91, Walrond said.

"She (was) surprised by all the attention," he said. "She got rather overwhelmed a little bit."

(Reporting by Greg Stutchbury; Editing by Nick Mulvenney and Peter Rutherford)

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