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Decades on, swimmer's Olympic and Commonwealth medal feats have never been matched . . .

TOMORROW marks the 64th anniversary of a sporting feat by a Scot whose Olympic and Commonwealth swimming achievements remain unsurpassed.

Elinor Gordon n with her Olympic 200m breaststroke bronze from Helsinki in 1952
Elinor Gordon n with her Olympic 200m breaststroke bronze from Helsinki in 1952

It was on February 6, 1950, that Helen Orr Gordon - or Elenor Gordon as she came to be known - won the 220 yards breaststroke in Auckland.

It was the first Empire Games gold won by a Scottish woman in any sport, and it was done on the rationing of post-war austerity. The three golds (plus a bronze) which she ultimately won remain the best by any Scottish female competitor. She was the first of only two Scots to be successful in defending a Commonwealth title (Liz McColgan, 10,000m, is the other) and no Scottish woman swimmer has won an individual Olympic medal since Gordon's bronze 62 years ago in Helsinki.

If the past is a foreign country, sport was surely a different planet then. Gordon describes the six weeks she spent travelling to New Zealand, with chaperones on the SS Tamaroa, yet reflects that her swimming career now seems to have happened to another person.

Now 80 and a grandmother, she is confined largely to a wheelchair because of a degenerative spinal condition, yet at heart she remains the feisty, working-class Lanarkshire lass who bucked the misogynist and class-conscious culture of her era to become a legend.

"I've told the hospital that if there is any possibility they can do an operation, please will they do it," she said. "I'm in a lot of pain, I even missed my 80th birthday party - I spent it in Hairmyres Hospital - but I'm not going into all that. I had a fantastic time, swimming."

Gordon beat the reigning Olympic silver medallist in Auckland, and is still Scotland's youngest Empire/Commonwealth Games title-winner, yet she was still winning world Masters titles in 1994: three golds and a world record.

"It feels like it all didn't happen to me," she said. "Swimming really is a different world today. I don't know whether I feel sorry or happy for these folk winning medals now. I don't really think they mean as much. It is different kettle of fish, going away to New Zealand and Australia now. They don't blink an eye, going away training somewhere for a month, and then they are back and off somewhere else. It's just not the same, but I would not swap places. Maybe we had the better of the travel, compared to flying today - taking six weeks by boat, and not being jet-lagged.

"I was just 16 and everything was new to us, all a big adventure. The journey wasn't in the least bit boring. I can still feel the hairs prickling on the back of the neck, from the opening ceremony, though I can't see anything beating the London Olympics opening.

"In Auckland, our ticket got us in everywhere. I saw Hugh Riley and Henry Gilliland win boxing gold in 1950, Duncan Clark winning the hammer, and Peter Heatly winning the diving."

Gordon described the six-week voyage on the Tamaroa, competitors jogging 20 times a day round the deck. "We punched a speed ball and swam in a wee wooden-framed canvas tank shared with dozens of English and Welsh competitors. "It wasn't even the size of my living room, just a four or five strokes, and you were at the end. But my turns were brilliant by the time we reached New Zealand. Food was still rationed and before we left we had to hand in our coupons books, so my family wouldn't have extra food."

Gordon recalls "queuing for hours in Hamilton after the war, and you were restricted to four apples when you got to the head of the queue."

Fresh fruit which came on board the Tamaroa at Panama, was an exotic luxury. "We spent Hogmanay there, and there was a ceilidh at a naval base." At the bells, she and two other 16-year swimmers, Margaret Girvan (Motherwell) and Betty Turner (Galashiels), stood with glasses of whisky. "We poured it into plant pots," Gordon said.

They had escaped the chaperone detailed to look after them. "Just about the first thing which happened when we got on board was that we were given knitting needles and balls of wool, and told the boat deck was strictly off limits after 9pm. I learned to dance on the Tamaroa, but I never did learn to knit."

Chaperones were more relaxed on the return journey: "There was a lot of hanky-panky going on."

It was an era of strict moral standards. Before the London Olympics in 1948, where Gordon made her GB debut aged 15, the team donned their Jantzen costumes, posing poolside with their legs in the water. "There was uproar at the photograph," Gordon said. "They thought we were showing too much flesh."

Modesty slips were provided, to wear underneath. The girls rebelled, and the slips had still not been worn when Gordon's were auctioned with her GB blazer and other memorabilia just before the 2012 Olympics.

It fetched around £1000, but almost half went in fees before the proceeds were invested in fittings for the flat into which Gordon and her husband, Ken McKay, a former world champion swimmer, recently moved.

Other than media fees after she stopped swimming, it was the only money his wife ever made from the sport, McKay notes. There was a £5 fee when she announced her retirement on BBC Scotland.

The Scottish Amateur Swimming Association then received 40% of its income from media fees, and within a week Gordon received a letter requesting their share be forwarded. She replied saying she had already spent it on an electric razor for her father, Gavin, who had coached her throughout her 11 years career of representing Scotland. "I felt it was the least I could do," she said.

By return she was informed she was now a professional, which was to prove a blessing. As a consequence she wrote a weekly column for the Daily Express and Evening Citizen in Glasgow. Yet more than a decade later, when Edinburgh Corporation invited her to the opening of the Royal Commonwealth Pool, the SASA president told Gordon she was "not welcome" at an evening function.

Her husband recalls: "It's lucky the president was a lady, otherwise I'd have punched him. That night we turned up, and Peter [Heatly, the gold medal-winning diver and Gordon's former team-mate] sneaked us in, and Elenor was presented to Princess Anne."

The president then, I note, was the late Mae Cochrane - who later became Sir Peter's second wife.

It is difficult to comprehend - or overstate - the pariah status of sporting professionals all those years ago. Gordon's father was a lifeguard at Hamilton baths, and so "made his living from swimming". Yet dozens of young swimmers were employed in holiday jobs at pools, without intervention. It was stark hypocrisy.

"Gavin never got a chance to meet other coaches, to compare notes or training schedules," McKay said. "He even had to pay to see Elenor at internationals, and could not get near her to offer advice or support."

Gordon's mother, father and three daughters lived in a room and kitchen with an outside toilet opposite Hamilton police station. Her mother took in washing from the police station. There was an outside boiler, and Gordon would help light the fire.

She was eliminated in the semi-finals at the 1948 Olympics in London where members of Britain's post-war team scavenged food from picnics abandoned by US athletes at the Exhibition Centre. Gordon's first pair of nylons were those she was given to wear at the opening ceremony.

Until then, on wartime rations, her training had been restricted to 20-minute sessions at Hamilton where 90% of pool time was reserved for males. She had to compete for space with children learning to swim. After the Olympics she was sometimes given a lane!

Gordon was Britain's only swimming medallist at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics. In a controversial 200m breaststroke final, butterfly (a new and faster style) was also permitted, and she finished third behind two butterfly swimmers.

When she next raced the winner under proper breaststroke rules, she won. She retired after a sixth place in Melbourne, her third Olympics. By then she was married, looking after a house, a husband, and working full time as a secretary. Starting a family was a priority, and Cardiff, the 1958 Empire venue, did not seem "that glamorous".

Gordon's husband of 59 years won 168 Scottish masters titles, 40 British titles, and five world golds, setting 10 world records. He is now his wife's carer. Gordon remains the greatest Scottish Games competitor - no Scottish woman has won more Commonwealth gold medals. The 2014 organisers could do worse than invite her to present the medals for the 200m breaststroke in Glasgow.

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