50 years ago today, Huddersfield swimmer Anita Lonsbrough received her Olympic gold medal - read her memories of that day

SHE was hours away from an Olympic final and the chance of a gold medal.

SHE was hours away from an Olympic final and the chance of a gold medal.

But young Huddersfield swimmer Anita Lonsbrough had an ideal way of combating nerves – she did her nails.

Not for her the tension of her great rival, and favourite for the medal, the top German swimmer Wiltrud Urselmann.

She paced backwards and forwards in the holding room below the Olympic pool as the nervous finalists for the 200m breaststroke were delayed by a judging debate from a previous race.

Anita, then just 19, was calmness itself.

"I’d had a good 12 hours sleep the night before the final and I knew that if I had slept well, I swam well."

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That came true minutes later, when the Huddersfield Borough Swimming Club star swept her way to Olympic gold and a new world record.

Today, the former champion looked back on those heady days and admitted: "It was the highlight of my career."

It was exactly 50 years today that Anita stood on the podium in Rome and had the gold medal placed around her neck, by the Marquess of Exeter.

But she held back the tears. "That was so unlike me, I cried many times," she admitted.

The Olympic glory was to change her life.

She did return to work, as a clerk in the treasurer’s department at Huddersfield Town Hall, but was stunned by the reception she received in her adopted home town of Huddersfield.

Anita, now 69, and living in Wolverhampton, recalled the moments.

"It was so wonderful when I got back from Rome.

"From the second I looked at the scoreboard at the end of the race, I had not been able to do anything.

"I remember waving to my mum Maude who had travelled to Rome to see me but I was then swept away for all the ceremonies.

"When I came back to Huddersfield it was unbelievable. They put on a civic reception for me and there were huge crowds in the street.

"They collected across the town for me and bought me a stunning silver tea service and when they presented it to me, I saw little old ladies in the front row who were crying and I realised how much it meant to them.

"It meant so much to Huddersfield and not just to me,

"I did go back to work at the Town Hall but swimming took up more and more time. I stayed until 1964 when I married Hugh Porter, the cyclist, and we moved to Wolverhampton."

She never forgot Huddersfield. She still holds a soft spot for the town’s football team – even though she and husband Hugh are Wolves supporters.

She later became a sports commentator and a journalist and was in Beijing to see Rebecca Adlington win gold.

Anita was not actually born in Huddersfield but in York, to Stanley, a Sergeant Major in the Coldstream Guards, and Maude.

She was taken to live in India for a while as her father was posted there but then returned to Yorkshire and went to school in Harrogate, where her father was stationed in Penny Pot Lane.

He then retired from the Army and took up a job in Huddersfield, bringing Anita at the age of 14.

"I had learned to swim while I was in India and then swam for the school while I was in Harrogate. When I came to Huddersfield I joined the Huddersfield Amateurs, but that was mainly a long-distance swimming club so I switched to the Huddersfield Baths Club under coach Harry Chambers.

"It was Harry who taught me how to relax before a competition and I remembered all his advice in Rome."

The two swimming clubs merged to become Huddersfield Borough Swimming Club and Anita recalled long training sessions at both the old Ramsden Street and Cambridge Road baths.

Both have long since been demolished.

It was in 1958 that she took up breaststroke at competitive level and she soon excelled.

She won medals in the 1958 Commonwealth Games and European Championships before being selected for the 1960 Olympics.

"It doesn’t seem like 50 years ago. My race was on the second day of the competition and we were living in a block of flats close to the stadium.

"Most of the athletes had not arrived by that time and I remember sneaking down to find an empty room on another floor to sleep on the night before the final.

"My heat was on the Friday and it went as well as I had hoped. I managed to clock the second fastest time and land myself a place in Lane 5 in the final, with Urselmann, who was the world record holder, on my left in the race.

"As I say, I managed to get in a good night’s sleep the night before the final and during the day I relaxed. I did my nails and tried to take my mind off the race.

"When we were called there had been a delay and Urselmann was really wound up. She was pacing up and down and I thought: ‘She’s using up a lot of energy there’.

"I knew she would get off to a fast start and planned not to go with her. She was ahead but I planned to close her down on the third of the four lengths.

"I was amazed to find out I was in second place at the halfway stage and then went past her halfway down the last length. Unusually, she came back but I had enough of a lead to hold on to it.

"I knew the split second I touched the side I had won but it was wonderful to see the scoreboard and my mum.

"I’m glad I did so well. I enjoyed my career completely and have no regrets, only thanks to my parents for the work they put in to support me. There is a tremendous pool of talent in British swimming at the moment and thanks to lottery funding, they have better training programmes and much better facilities.

"Everything I did was down to my parents and to my coach.

"I really loved my time with the Huddersfield club. We travelled to matches together on the coach and there was a great atmosphere.

"It was a great time."

ANITA Lonsbrough’s glittering career lasted for many years.

It included appearances in two Olympics Games, two European Championships and two Commonwealth Games, as well as a host of international matches.

She also swam countless times in national competitions for the Huddersfield Borough Swimming Club.

Her first major success came at the 1958 British Empire and Commonwealth Games in Cardiff when she won gold in the 220 yards breaststroke and the medley relay.

She also competed in the European championships in Budapest that year, claiming bronze in the 4 x 100m medley.

It was in 1960, at the Olympics in Rome, on August 27, 1960, that she re-wrote British swimming history.

At the age of 19, she won gold in the 200m breaststroke in 2:49.5 ahead of West Germany's Wiltrud Urselmann (2:50.0), setting a new world record time. She was one of only two GB gold medallists that year, the other being Don Thompson in the 50 kilometre walk.

She would also be the last British woman to win Olympic gold in swimming until Rebecca Adlington gained the gold in the 2008 summer Olympics, 48 years later.

At the 1962 British Empire and Commonwealth Games in Perth she won three golds – 110 yards breaststroke, 220 yards breaststroke and 440 yards individual medley.

She also secured gold in the 200m breaststroke at the European championships in Leipzig, along with silver in the 400m individual medley and bronze in the 4 x 100m medley.

And at the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo she came seventh in the 400m individual medley.

Her success in the sport also brought other honours.

She was selected to be the first female Olympics flag-bearer for Great Britain in Tokyo in 1964 and was the first woman winner of the BBC Sports Personality of the Year in 1962.

She was awarded the MBE in 1963 for her servings to swimming.

In 1983 she was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame.

 

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