Swimming champion

Swimming champion

Born: May 10, 1933; Died: July 5, 2014

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ELENOR Gordon McKay, who has died aged 81, was the outstanding Scottish swimmer of her generation, although she would tell you that accolade properly belongs to Nancy Riach, her former Great Britain team mate.

Her 220 yards breaststroke victory at the 1950 Auckland Empire Games, achieved on post-war rationing, was the first individual Games title by a Scottish woman in any sport. She was due to present the equivalent medal (200m) at the Commonwealth Games this month.

When she travelled to New Zealand in 1950, spending six weeks on the SS Tamaroa, austerity prevailed. Swimmers trained on board in a canvas tank that she said was smaller than her living room in Hamilton. "Four or five strokes and you were at the end," she said, "but my turns were brilliant by the time we arrived."

Women were also strictly chaperoned, at least on the outbound journey. "When we got on board, we were given knitting needles and balls of wool and told the boat deck was strictly off limits after 9pm," she said.

"I learned to dance on the Tamaroa, but I never did learn to knit." The restrictions were relaxed on the return journey: "There was a lot of hanky-panky going on."

The three gold medals and a bronze which McKay ultimately won remain the best at an Empire or Commonwealth Games by any Scottish female. She is one of only two Scottish women to successfully defend a Commonwealth title (Liz McColgan at 10,000m is the other) and no Scottish female swimmer has won an individual Olympic medal since the bronze McKay won 62 years ago in Helsinki. "Don't keep writing that about me," she pleaded the last time we spoke. "It makes me feel old."

McKay shared a room with Riach on her international debut at the European Championships in Monaco; Glasgow's multiple UK record-holder was pulled unconscious from the water and never regained consciousness. Polio was the cause of death. It was a horrific baptism, but the Hamilton swimmer was no stranger to adversity.

Born in a room and kitchen with an outside toilet in Beckford Street, opposite the police station, she lived there with her parents and two sisters. One task was to fire up an outside boiler because her mum took in police washing. She was born Helen Orr Gordon but this became corrupted to Elenor when her name was announced at galas.

Her father Gavin was a lifeguard at Hamilton baths and so was classed as a professional. He was a sporting pariah, almost incomprehensible today.

"He had no coaching qualification, and never got a chance to meet other coaches, to compare notes or training methods," says McKay's husband Ken. "He even had to pay to see Elenor at internationals, and could not get near her to offer advice. He did an amazing coaching job.

"Women were restricted to just 20 minutes (in the pool). Most bathing was mixed, and only after the 1948 London Olympics did Elenor occasionally get an individual lane. Otherwise she ploughed her way through recreational bathers in a 25-yard pool."

Prevailing moral standards were reflected in the Jantzen costumes the women wore for London '48. The GB team posed, poolside, legs in the water. "There was uproar at the photograph," recalled McKay. "They thought we were showing too much flesh."

Modesty slips were provided, to wear underneath, but the girls rebelled, and the slips had never been worn when she auctioned them with her GB blazer and other memorabilia just before the 2012 Olympics. With the money the sale raised, the couple bought curtains and other fittings for their new flat.

Before the 1948 Olympics, there were gifts of frozen legs of New Zealand lamb, honey, sugar and butter, and standard rations for Olympians were upgraded to match those of miners.

Despite this, McKay recalled Britain's post-war team scavenging from picnics abandoned by US athletes and travelling to the opening ceremony with her uniform in a paper bag, to keep it clean.

"There was nowhere to change," she said. "We climbed into the back of an old army lorry. I had never seen nylons before and barely knew how to put them on."

Just 15, she was eliminated in the semi-finals (her first time in a 50-metre pool as Scotland did not have one) but in Helsinki four years later she was the only UK swimming medallist. In a controversial 200m breaststroke final, butterfly (a new and faster style) was also then permitted, and she was third behind two Hungarian 'fly swimmers.

Next time she raced the winner Eva Szekely under the new breaststroke rules, McKay won. This was at the Scottish West District Championships, but stuffy officials would not tell the crowd she had beaten the Olympic champion because it was a domestic event.

She announced her retirement after achieving sixth place in her third Olympics (a second and a half faster than in 1952). By then, she was married, looking after a house, a husband, and working full time as a secretary.

She made the announcement on TV, receiving a £5 fee, which the Scottish swim body demanded. She said she had bought an electric razor, to thank her father, and was sent what her husband describes as a nasty letter saying she was a professional and was suspended. When the Royal Commonwealth Pool opened for the 1970 Games, she was "not welcome" until diver Sir Peter Heatly intervened.

Thereafter, she wrote a weekly column for the Daily Express and Evening Citizen.

She returned briefly to the sport as a veteran in 1994, winning three world masters titles and setting a world record. Her husband won 168 Scottish masters titles, 40 British, and five world, setting 10 world records.

Married almost 60 years, he describes how they met: "Elenor's dad told me to go up to the deep end and get heated up before the next session. There were two showers and a hot bath. This primary schoolgirl was sitting in the bath, and I had to join her. For 40 minutes, I had to watch where I put my toes. That's how I met Elenor."

She was still playing golf at Riccarton until five years ago, but had been confined to a wheelchair with an inoperable degenerative spinal condition for some 18 months. Despite this, she enjoyed a holiday with her family in their Stonehaven caravan, returning earlier this month.

She died in Wishaw General Hospital and is survived by her husband, sons Colin and Allan, and four grand daughters.