Faith Leech’s journey to become an Olympic Games gold medallist is a remarkable tale of triumph over adversity.
Bendigo’s sole Olympic gold medallist, Leech overcame two serious birth defects to be a part of the famous women’s 4x100m freestyle team – which included Dawn Fraser – at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics.
After losing their first child to leukaemia when she was two years old, Leech’s parents were told they would never have another child.
But along came Faith, born with a double curvature of the spine and digestive problems that meant she had trouble retaining food.
In her early years, Leech’s mother would put food through a sieve to help her digestion, but her back problems puzzled many specialists – one of whom said the then five-year-old would be in a wheelchair by the time she was 40.
Determined this wouldn’t be her fate, Leech’s parents took a step that would lead to her becoming Australia’s individual 100m freestyle champion at just 13.
“They thought they would get me towards swimming and that might help – that’s how I came to learn to swim,” Leech said from her Strathdale home.
“My coach (European backstroke champion Gus Froelich) was teaching down at Mornington where my mum’s sister lived, and we went down there for Christmas and he was teaching on the beach.
“They thought ‘oh well, we’ll see how she goes’. I never used to put my head under the water because of all the goobies, but that’s how it all started.”
At the time Bendigo didn’t have a pool, just a lake where the Bendigo Aquatic Centre now is, but – along with weight exercises and dry-land simulations with a spring attached to a kitchen door – that was all Leech had.
“That’s the only place we had to swim. It was full of turtles and leeches and yabbies and fish. It was unreal. It had a dirty, muddy bottom – you wouldn’t put your feet on the bottom,” Leech said.
“Mum and dad used to take me to Melbourne on weekends so that I could have lessons with my coach. What they sacrificed for me was unreal.
“When I had to go to secondary school, mum and I took a flat down in Melbourne so I could be a day scholar and train after school with my coach. Poor old dad had to stay here and look after the business, so we’d only catch up at weekends.”
Froelich was a perfectionist and he taught the tall and skinny young girl the long, slow strokes that would make her a champion.
After Leech plucked up the courage to put her head under water she became unstoppable and raced to many Victorian junior records before setting an unofficial world record in the 110 yards freestyle for her age group as a 12-year-old.
“Talking about it’s like a different life, it’s magic when you think about it,” said the now 71-year-old.
She finished third in the Australian Open Championships that year, but in 1955 she took the title to become the youngest swimmer to win a national title at just 13.
The performance set her up for a tilt at the Olympic trials and as a 14-year-old she swam 1:04.6min – one-tenth of a second outside Dawn Fraser’s world record – before defeating Fraser and another eventual Olympic team-mate Lorraine Crapp in the rain at Moomba – the first time they competed against one another.
In the Olympic year, Leech was unable to defend her national title because of illness, but finished behind Fraser and Crapp at the Olympic trials to book a place in the Australian team.
At the tender age of 15, Leech found herself sharing a bedroom with the rebellious Fraser in the Olympic Village and that’s when the reality of her achievements began to sink in.
“I don’t think it registered… until the Games when we were out at the Village I think it suddenly struck me. It was the first time I was away from mum and dad, they really sheltered me, I think because of the loss of my sister,” Leech said.
“It was an adventure, wondering what was going to happen next.”
Being around Fraser, nobody – including Leech and her relay team-mates Crapp and Sandra Morgan – knew what was going to happen next.
“The South African girls were next to us next door and ‘Dawny’ short-sheeted their beds,” Leech said.
“What she didn’t do… one night Lorraine and one of the other girls were asked to go somewhere and she missed out going. So she thought ‘I’ll fix them’ and she put their beds up on top of the flat laundry roof.
“It was fun stuff, she never did anything bad.”
Fraser took gold in the 100m individual freestyle in Melbourne, ahead of Crapp and then Leech who fought from fourth place with 25m to go for an Australian trifecta.
Leech thought she had come fourth and couldn’t believe the official who told her not to disappear to the changerooms, but even better was to come.
In the 4x100m relay, Australia had the three fastest swimmers in the world, but Leech said she didn’t think they had a chance against the “Yankees”.
Fraser led off the race for Australia, but lost time after pausing when she thought there had been a false start.
Leech went second and kept Australia ahead of the Americans, who overhauled Morgan in the third leg before she fought back to ensure Crapp started the final leg in front.
Crapp swam a brilliant anchor leg to extend the winning margin to 2.2 seconds and the Australian women set a new world record of 4:17.1min to claim gold.
“They thought the Yankees would do it, but we showed ’em,” Leech said. “It was marvellous, it was absolutely out of this world – particularly (to set) a world record.
“I’ve got a feeling Waltzing Matilda was played at some stage (after the race). I used to love that, because that seemed to me to be Aussie. Because God Save the Queen was the national anthem then.”
After the buzz of the Olympics had quietened, Leech returned to the pool, but began to suffer problems with her vision.
“The next year I competed again, but it was eerie. Every time I swam, there was a white outline around everything,” she said.
“I didn’t know what the heck was wrong with me, the doctor said it was just the experience I had at that age.”
At doctor’s advice she retired from swimming and after a brief stint modelling in Melbourne she returned to Bendigo.
She worked at the family jewellery store in Hargreaves Street, eventually became a school teacher and had two children, Adam and Troy.
Although she no longer swam competitively, Leech kept herself fit and taught disabled and paraplegic people to swim.
She became a patron of Victorian Paralympics, before she was struck down with throat cancer in 2001 – which she believes was caused by smoking since she was in her 20s.
A 50cm tumour was cut out of her neck – along with part of her tongue – and she underwent six weeks of radiation therapy.
“After that I became a Cancer Connect volunteer, which made me feel like what I had was nothing.
“If anyone rang the helpline down there that’s got cancer between the neck and head… I’d ring them to say I’ve been there, done that and can help you out. But the stories I heard about them made mine seem like nothing.”
One of those fellow cancer sufferers was sprinter Betty Cuthbert, who won three gold medals in 1956, and is someone Leech still keeps in contact with today.
Leech had more surgery soon after her tumour was removed and the cancer hasn’t returned, but she has battled back pain for her entire life.
Her spine is now calcified and she sees a chiropractor and receives a massage each fortnight.
After enduring so much throughout her life, you might think Leech would look back on her swimming career as a reminder of how she rose above the pain to succeed – but she is happier for her parents than for herself.
“I didn’t do the heavy work the others did and achieved what I did, I think it was slight little compensation for mum and dad losing my sister,” she said.
Leech maintains strong friendships with Fraser, Crapp and Morgan to this day and this is something she cherishes.
“It’s great. We call each other on birthdays,” she said. “Each Olympic year – I didn’t go this year – there’s a PMs dinner that they call on us and ask us to host tables to raise funds for the athletes and we catch up at those dinners.
“It’s great to know what we did together, we can still be like a family.”