Denmark's Ragnhild Hveger, with 44 world records but a career lost to war in the 1930s and 40s, died just shy of her 91st birthday on December 10.
Among the many athletic careers lost to war, one swimming record stands above all others in the aquatics history file labelled “what might have been”: Ragnhild Hveger, of Nyborg, Denmark, was one of the greatest, perhaps the greatest, swimmer never to have won an Olympic title.
At 15, Hveger took a surprise silver over 400m freestyle at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, just 1.1sec behind Dutch distance ace Rie Mastenbroek. Among the 42 world records she established was a 2:21.7 in the 200m freestyle that would survive 20 years; from 1938 until the emergence of Dawn Fraser (AUS) in 1956. Hveger broke the 400m record eight times, her time dropping from 5:14.2 to 5:00.1 (1937-1940). Hveger was first inside 11mins over 800m and first inside 21mins over 1,500m.
The month before the 1936 Olympic Games Hveger set the first of her world records, in 11:11.7 in the 800m freestyle. There being no 800m race in those days at the Games, the young Dane’s best chance came in the 400m. In the heats in Berlin, set a 5:28.0 Olympic record that took her 0.5sec inside the 1932 winning time of Helene Madison (USA). On the day of the final, Hveger was given a box of chocolates by fans. She shared them with her fellow competitors but, several references and press cuttings from the time note, walked straight past Mastenbroek, the 1934 European champion.
Not a good move, as it turned out. In the final, Hveger took the race out hard, turning first in 34.0 and 1:15.0 at 50m and 100m respectively, with American Lenora Wingard (nee Kight), second by 0.1sec to Madison four years earlier, a touch behind and Mastenbroek on 1:15.6. By 200m, all three turned at 2:40.0, and by 300m, Hveger’s 4:05.9 left her 0.1sec ahead of her two rivals. Down the next length, the Dane edged ahead for the first time but out of the last turn, it was Mastenbroek who found extra reserves and sprinted past Hveger to take the title in an Olympic record of 5:26.4.
Suspended by Denmark after WWII because she had taught swimming at a German naval college and was considered to be a collaborator by those fighting the horrors of the Nazi regime, Hveger was eventually reinstated but had retired in 1945 and missed the Olympic Games of London 1948.
However, in 1952 - with her 1940 400m world record still in place - she made a comeback and finished fifth over eight laps in Helsinki. She was 32. Her finest competitive tally was a three-gold-medal haul (100m, 400m and 4x100m freestyle) at the 1938 European Championships in London: her victory by 18.7sec in 5:09.0 over 400m set a championship record that would survive until 1958, while her 100m championship record in 1:06.2 would stand until 1954. She was a member of the two Danish 4x100m freestyle quartets that set two world records in 1938.