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Subject: John Konrads, Australian Olympic swimmer - won the gold medal in the 1500 meter freestyle at the 1960 Olympics

He was 78
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Date Posted: Monday, April 26, 11:44:35am

Thirty-two years before Kieren Perkins became a household name when he won 1500m freestyle gold at the Barcelona Games of 1992, John Konrads would overcome a ‘panicky’ feeling to complete the feat aged just 17 at the Rome Olympics of 1960.

Like Perkins would come to be known, the victory would cement Konrads’ reputation as the ‘world’s best distance swimmer’, as reported by The Sydney Morning Herald after the race. He would be remembered as one of Australia’s greatest swimmers as tributes poured in following his death on Sunday, aged 78.

Konrads was a teenaged prodigy and a fixture at the Bankstown pool, where he would train with sister and fellow Olympian Ilsa, a silver medal winner in Rome as part of the 4x100m freestyle relay that included the great Dawn Fraser.

He set some 26 world records and at one point, in the lead-up to Rome, held records from 200m up to 1500m, becoming the first male swimmer to achieve that remarkable feat. In 1959, at the Australian championships, he won every single men’s freestyle race on the schedule.

“During his peak in the 1950s and 60s John dominated the Australian swimming scene and achieved sensational feats in the distance freestyle events,” said Perkins, now the president of Swimming Australia.

“The 1500m race obviously holds a very special place in my heart and I was lucky to have role models and mentors like John shine a light on this event for Australia. His feats helped cement it as an iconic event for our country at every Olympics.”

‘The Konrads Kids’ were born in Riga, Latvia, and emigrated to Australia with their parents Janis and Elza, grandmother and sister Eve after the Second World War. They first settled in rural NSW where their father taught them to swim so they didn’t drown in any of the nearby watering holes and dams, as well as therapy for John’s polio.

When they moved to Sydney, the siblings were quickly noticed by a Revesby Primary School teacher named Don Talbot, who along with Bankstown coach Frank Guthrie would help mould John into an Olympic champion and one of the faces of a true golden age for the sport in Australia.

He won all of his Olympic medals, a gold and two bronze (400m freestyle, 4x200m freestyle), in Rome and would go on to represent Australia in Tokyo four years later, where he competed as a relay swimmer. Upon his retirement, Konrads would become Australasian director of cosmetics giant L’Oreal and helped Sydney win the 2000 Olympics.

“John’s story is quite amazing, it’s one of resilience and perseverance,” Perkins said. “To arrive in Australia as a young boy from Latvia who couldn’t swim, to then attend an Olympic Games as a 14-year-old (Melbourne, 1956) only a few years later is remarkable.

“On behalf of Swimming Australia I’d like to send my condolences to John’s family, friends and loved ones – it’s a terribly sad time.”

John’s success is all the more incredible given the immense nerves he suffered when he competed on the grand stage. Speaking to the Herald at the Games in 1960, he said he lost his composure badly in the 400m as he finished third to countryman and 1956 champion Murray Rose.

“The 400 metres is over and it does not do any good to rehash these things,” he said. “But there are no two ways about it, I panicked in the 400 when the going got tough. I shortened my stroke and kept my head up watching the others.

“It’s no use crying over it — Murray was infinitely the better competitor in the 400m and thoroughly deserved his gold medal last night.

“I tried to be more placid. I kept telling myself not to get nervous or to worry about the other swimmers and I swam a lot better. ’The experience I have gained from these Olympics will make me a much better competition swimmer.”

Ilsa burst into tears when she saw her brother win the 1500m and John struggled to hold his emotions in check as he received his medal. Afterwards, he would rush out in the middle of a radio interview to see Ilsa receive her silver medal for the relay.

John Konrads was inducted into the Sport Australia Hall of Fame in 1985, with Hall of Fame chairman John Bertrand paying tribute to his vast achievements and contribution to the swimming community and beyond.

“He was a proud Sport Australia Hall of Fame member with an extravagant sense of humour who will leave a lasting legacy around the world,” Bertrand said.

“Our condolences are with his sister Ilsa, the Konrads family and the many lives John touched within the swimming and broader communities.”


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