Jean Burnett (McDowell), olympic swimmer; born
September 22, 1908, died
February 2, 2000
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JEAN Burnett (nee McDowell) has died at the age of 91. An outstanding swimmer during the 1920s and 1930s, she ranks highly among Scotland's early female sporting pioneers.
Born in Edinburgh, her sporting prowess was first spotted when she was on holiday in North Berwick by swimming coach James McCracken. A stylish freestyler, she won five Scottish titles for her club, Warrender, and was selected for the British Olympic team for the 1928 Olympic Games in Amsterdam. At the time of her successes, mixed bathing was not allowed and training times at swimming pools were restricted - particularly for women. ''Training at Warrender was on Saturday mornings when all the school kids were there. It was hopeless. There was no thought that I, an Olympic hopeful, should have room to swim,'' she later recalled
As Jean McDowell, she competed at a time when even the founder of the modern Olympic Games, Pierre de Coubertin, was against women's participation in sports, but female sporting pioneers ignored the social norms of the time. Jean never cared about the opinions of others who might want to keep her out of the Olympics, or off the golf course. ''I liked sports. I was good at them and I just got on with it,'' she said.
At the 1928 Olympics, she was involved in a very tight finish in the 100 metres freestyle final, losing the bronze medal to the outstanding English swimmer of the era, Joyce Cooper, in a split decision. She was also left out of the relay team which went on to win a silver medal. Speaking in 1999 about her experience of the Amsterdam games she said: ''It was a disappointment, certainly, but it's a long time ago and you get over these things.''
She was a member of the small Scottish contingent to the first Empire (Commonwealth) Games in 1930, where she won bronze as a member of the ladies relay team, and at the 1934 London games she again won bronze in the individual freestyle and relay. Towards the end of her swimming career, her interest in golf grew and she developed her own game, ultimately achieving a handicap of six.
She made a huge contribution throughout her life to the administrative and organisational side of the golfing world, which culminated in her becoming President of the Scottish Ladies Golfing Association, the non-playing Captain of the Curtis Cup team, and Chair of the Ladies Golf Union (the governing body of British women's golf). She was an honorary life member at Gullane, as well as at North Berwick.
Jean Burnett was still to be seen driving to the Gullane course to play six holes at 7.00am in her ninetieth year. She is survived by two sons and a daughter, eight grandsons, and two great grandchildren.