Cecil M. Colwin
One day, last year, at the end of the morning heats of the 1996 Australian Olympic Trials in Sydney, I was touring the magnificent new venue for the Sydney 2000 Olympics, when John Devitt asked me if I would like to see "the marvellous winter facility" where he had trained as a young lad.
We were both leaving to watch a rugby game that afternoon, but John said he would take a detour to show me his old training venue. As we drove, John explained how, following World War II, there were no indoor heated swimming pools in Sydney that were open to the general public but, eager to ensure the success of their swimmers, a number of Sydney coaches had sought to set up some form of year-round swimming.
John told me that his first coach had been "an innovative fellow" by the name of Tom Penny, who had a hunch that somewhere in Sydney he would find warm water where his swimmers could train.
Penny figured out the problem this way: Australia had abundant coal supplies. Coal was used to drive the country's electrical power stations. The turbines in these power stations tended to overheat. Water from Sydney harbour was used to cool them. The water was taken through a screening process to extract debris, then pumped through a canal into the turbines with the result that hot water came out the other side. Devitt said: "By now, you'll have guessed where our coach finally found winter swimming 'facilities' for us."
Devitt said, "At White Bay power station, on Sydney Harbour, there was a stretch of water under the wharf that provided a square 'swimming course,' and this is where 'Coach Tom' decided we would train; 'under the boardwalk,' as you might say, hidden from sight."
To some degree, swimming under the wharf, in the mostly heated, swift-flowing water from the White Bay power station, helped Devitt and his training partners to swim year-round and obtain good conditioning, at a time when lack of formal facilities would have made such activities impossible. Obviously this wasn't a year-round program in the proper sense of the term, but it taught them to handle very primitive conditions.
Barnacles and oysters flourished in this warm seawater environment. They grew everywhere, and especially on the rocks and on the piles that supported the wharves. For protection the swimmers wore shoes, even while they swam. Devitt said, "The only suitable shoes available in those days were sand shoes, which allowed us to tread safely on the bottom. The shoes filled up with water and became heavy, hence I developed the sort of '2-beat Australian kick' that stayed with me throughout my career."
When swimming for distance, Devitt and his friends swam along the perimeter of the square course, and each complete circuit totalled about 400 metres. Because the current flowed into the course at right angles to it, they would encounter the current from different directions as they turned each corner of the square. First, they swam head-on into it, then, as they turned, the current battered them from the side, and they had to try hard to keep on a straight course. Then, coming down the third side of the square, they had a "free ride," as the current pushed them from behind to the next turn, where the current again swept them sideways, until they turned the corner to start the next circuit, and face yet another tough "head-on" swim, straight into the full force of the current.
They swam against what was often a substantial rush of water. But the speed of the water coming through the channel depended upon the tide, and whether the power station was using two, three, or four of its turbines at any particular time of the day.
When the turbine power was reduced, not only did the flow slow down, but there were also sudden changes in water temperature. Without much warning, the swimmers would find themselves in water as much as 15 to 20 degrees colder, causing shock to the system, as well as severe cramps.
Devitt said, "The current enabled us to develop strength and power, and, as we grew older, we took advantage of the speed of the current to learn pace judgement. We knew just how fast the current was moving and how long we could stay in a particular spot while swimming against the current. We continued swimming these 400 metre 'laps' until we were thankful to hear the coach call a halt. This routine provided quite a good workout. Some of us called it 'square bashing.'
"As if square bashing wasn't enough to keep us fit, Tom Penny, always innovative, discovered a canal on the other side of the power station, about 20 metres wide, through which a strong current flowed in one direction. Penny quickly noted that the canal provided the potential for about 120 metres of continuous swimming. We knew our coach well, and so we weren't too surprised when he decided that it would be a good idea for us to swim directly into the current. He didn't call these 'effort swims,' but he would have been considered ahead of his time had he done so.
"After we had swum up against the current in the 120 metres course, we would drift back in its flow to the starting point, all the time practising tumble-turn somersaults on the barnacled walls of the canal. This routine helped us to develop a fast approach into the turn, when actually turning in a proper swimming pool. In this way, we used our time in the water to best effect."
"In the winter, we trained at White Bay, 20 minutes from downtown Sydney, on the weekends. Every Saturday and Sunday, we would swim for two hours in the mornings from 10 to 12, have lunch, then swim from 2 to 4. From the age of eight until I was about sixteen, this routine was a big part of our training program and swimming development."
Devitt said that, in the late 1940s and early 1950s, there were about six or eight swimmers in their group at any given time. It was also an "educational experience" for them, because they had to overcome numerous other difficulties.
"We had to travel 15 miles by train into the city. Then we had to travel by tram (streetcar) for another 8 to 10 miles to get to the 'facility.' All this created a team environment; we learned to work in a squad, and be part of a team. All these factors helped to develop a competitive personality, and a good attitude towards the sport.
"The conditions were tough, and only those who really wanted to succeed continued to do it. It was hard work and it was difficult, but no one was forced to do it. The experience stood all of us in good stead, because as we got older, we found ourselves able to meet other difficulties without getting ruffled.
"Keep in mind, we didn't always have beautiful heated swimming pools with magnificent lighting, and all the other modern functions, such as we now have at Homebush. In those days, there were many tidal swimming pools with no such thing as a black line to guide you. Neither did we have good lane lines. Swimming straight was a very important part of the race, because it was easy to become fouled in the ropes. As I say, all this helped us to adjust to any difficult situation we were likely to encounter in our racing careers.
Devitt said that today's swimmers would not be able to handle these earlier conditions. Neither would he want them to handle anything similar. "We've made too much progress for that to occur; at least I hope so. But, these early difficulties, tough as they were, did help us to lay a good foundation, and a very good standard, for post-war swimming in Australia.
"The type of environment in which we trained produced some great swimmers, and those guys lifted our standards in the late 40s, especially one swimmer by the name of Barry Darke. Barry was the first great Australian swimmer to emerge after the war. He raised our immediate post-war standards, set new records and set levels for us to attempt to emulate. In doing so, we were able to help Australian swimming move away from the need to swim in facilities such as those we endured at 'White Bay.' "
By this time, John had turned the car off the expressway, and we were driving along the Western edge of Sydney's dockland, steering between cranes and bumping over old railroad tracks. We got out of the car. Except for a giant tanker at its moorings, and a drab old power station in the distance, the place was deserted. The scene could have provided a movie set for a thriller or some other gangster film.
"Well, where did you train?" I asked.
"You're standing on it!" Devitt said. "Come with me, and I'll show you."
We climbed over a barbed wire security fence, and there, between the cracks in the dangerously rotted timber beams, in the darkness below, I could just make out the remains of the old swimming enclosure where, long ago, Australia's future champions had trained.
Swimming in the dark cavern below the wharf must have been a claustrophobic experience, and I knew now why John had made a special point of mentioning the "magnificent lighting" at the Homebush Olympic Pool. I turned to John and said, "Yes, I don't think many of today's swimmers would jump at the opportunity of getting in some winter training down there."
"No. I don't think so either," said John as we carefully made our way back to the car.
John Devitt is Vice-President of the Australian Olympic Council, and also Vice-President of Australian Swimming Inc. (Incidentally, the President of Australian Swimming is Terry Gathercole, also an ex-Olympian. Other countries may want to take note.)
Devitt started swimming at the age of six under the guidance of coach Tom Penny. He won his first district championship when he was ten. At the age of twelve he had won his first New South Wales title over 55 yards, and at fifteen, he became the Australian 110 yards freestyle Junior Champion, and the second junior to beat 60 seconds for 100 metres. Over the following three years, Devitt won every junior state title from 110 yards to 440 yards. By the time he was 16, he held 17 junior records. He later joined the impressive training squad coached by master coach Sam Herford, who also trained Murray Rose.
Competing in the 100 metres freestyle at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, Devitt lost a close finish to his teammate, Jon Henricks, but in the next year, he finally came into his own by breaking the world 110 yards record twice within nine days.
Devitt was a natural leader, well respected by officials and fellow competitors alike. He was the unanimous choice of his fellow swimmers when he was appointed captain of the victorious Australian 1956 Olympic team, as well as the 1960 Rome Olympic team, and the 1958 Cardiff Empire Games team. In all, he was elected captain of Australian international swimming teams on seven occasions.
Devitt won the 100 metres freestyle Olympic championship in Rome, 1960, after which he retired with five successful tours behind him.
During his career, Devitt won two Olympic gold medals, a silver and a bronze, three Commonwealth Games gold medals, held five Australian titles, and held the world record 14 times.
In the 1980s he was appointed secretary general of the New South Wales Olympic Council.