Hunter swimmer recalls his Olympics

THE original Singleton town pool, where Kevin Hallett learnt to swim back in the war years, no longer exists.

‘‘That’s where Woolworths is at the moment,’’ he said.

Likewise, his irreplaceable team photos and other treasured mementoes are long since gone, ruined in the infamous flood of 1955, when the Hunter River surged in ‘‘up over the light switches’’ and three residents lost their lives.

But a display case containing his medals and a green-and-gold blazer, embossed with Australia’s coat of arms, has miraculously survived.

And the memories of an adventure long ago will last a lifetime.

As we coax Mr Hallett into slipping the iconic jacket on for a photograph, we note he has no problem fastening the buttons.

Sixty-four years after he was kitted out for the London Olympics, the 82-year-old still looks fit as a fiddle.

But back in the day he was churning out lap after lap – a mile at the crack of dawn, another mile at dusk after knocking off from his job as a clerk.

Mr Hallett was a man on a mission.

The good folk of Singleton had raised £500 to pay his fare to London. He wanted to do them proud.

‘‘Those were the days when money was pretty tight,’’ he said. ‘‘Five hundred pounds was a lot of money. ‘‘It came in one pounds, two pounds, over a period ... the whole Valley got involved with it.’’

That complete strangers were willing to invest their faith in him was humbling for Mr Hallett, who said he did not get involved in any ‘‘serious’’ swimming until he won the state titles in 1947-48.

From there, he progressed to the nationals and, after placing in the breaststroke and individual medley events, was one of 10 swimmers named in Australia’s 77-strong team.

‘‘I was just an average swimmer – freestyle, backstroke, and I could just breaststroke,’’ he said. ‘‘But when the butterfly stroke came in, I guess I was just a natural.’’

In those days, Mr Hallett said, it was acceptable to use butterfly in a breaststroke race, and he would regularly switch styles mid-race.

It was not until 1952 that butterfly was acknowledged as a separate entity.

Needless to say, the creation of a new event has not been the only change over the ensuing decades.

There were no full-body super suits in 1948. No drug testing. No institute of sport technology. No multimillion-dollar endorsements.

‘‘The difference is that they’re all professionals now,’’ Mr Hallett says. ‘‘We were amateurs. They train 35 or 40 hours a week ... but I think we enjoyed ourselves more.’’

And while billions have been spent on stadiums, infrastructure and promoting the Games of the 30th Olympiad, old London Town was not quite so flush 64 years ago.

World War II, of course, had ended three years earlier, and England was still repairing the devastation inflicted by the Luftwaffe blitz.

Those Olympics became known as the ‘‘Austerity Games’’.

No new facilities were built. Competitors were accommodated on camp stretchers in former army barracks, air bases and colleges.

Perhaps the only extravagance was Australia’s decision to send its team to London by plane, as opposed to the traditional six-week boat voyage.

Yet even this was not the luxury many would have expected. The trip took four days.

‘‘Refuelling was the problem,’’ Mr Hallett said. ‘‘They had to refuel in Darwin, so we stopped there. Then Singapore, then the next night Karachi, which was under marshall law, so we weren’t allowed out of the hotel.

‘‘Then next stop Cairo, then a last stop for fuel in Tripoli and onto London.’’

Asked how he performed in London, Mr Hallett said, with a wry smile: ‘‘Don’t talk about it.’’

His countless hours in the water had left him suffering a condition known as tenosynovitis, an inflammation of the tendons in his shoulders.

‘‘It didn’t just affect me in London. It happened a couple of times in the Australian titles, and I came second because I couldn’t push it,’’ he said. ‘‘A few years later, I couldn’t even butterfly any more. I couldn’t swim a length.’’

For the record, he finished seventh in his heat of the 220-yard breaststroke, in a time of 3 min, 2 secs, and did not qualify for the final, won by American Joe Verdeur.

But the memories and the mateship far outweighed his race-day disappointment.

‘‘After we competed, we had a bit of time off,’’ he said. ‘‘They paid us five shillings a day.

‘‘We didn’t spend any, because they were feeding us and keeping us, so it built up to a few dollars.

‘‘It came in handy, because our diver, Dave Norris, he was a prisoner of war in France, and he wanted to go back over and have a look around. So the money we saved was enough for us to get to Paris.’’

Two years later, Mr Hallett swam at the Melbourne Empire Games, where for the only time in his career he was disqualified for an illegal kick. He retired soon afterwards from elite competition.

Perhaps the greatest conquest of his swimming career was his wife of 56 years, Muswellbrook-born Gladys, with whom he has raised three children.

‘‘Her brother was a swimmer, that’s how we met,’’ he said.

Together the Halletts will be keen viewers on July 27, when the competitors march out for the opening ceremony of London’s third Olympics, after 1908 and 1948.

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