History column

Olympians: John Oravainen, Don Talbot (Team co-coach), Bill Burton poolside in Ayr, at the Australian Swimming Team’s training camp for the 1962 Perth British Empire and Commonwealth Games.

Olympians: John Oravainen, Don Talbot (Team co-coach), Bill Burton poolside in Ayr, at the Australian Swimming Team’s training camp for the 1962 Perth British Empire and Commonwealth Games.

John Oravainen embraced every young migrant’s dream of a new life in Australia, with its abundant sunshine and summer sport.

But that dream was quickly tainted when his family arrived in Mount Isa in the late 1940s, during one of the hottest summers then on record. 

They would not have been thought any less of, had they quickly turned around and returned to the colder Northern Hemisphere and their European birthplace of Finland, home of Santa Claus and his reindeer. 

Fortunately, they decided to call Mount Isa home and soon their adopted town was calling him one of its sporting sons.

Oravainen was a regular lad, skylarking with his school mates at the local pool, when he started to take a more serious interest in swimming lessons, which in turn lead to his joining the local swimming club. 

Through the ensuring years, he swam his way through weekly club meets eventually gaining selection for the 1960 and 1961 North Queensland Swimming Championships in Townsville.

And while many swimmers lapsed alongside the pool with their ‘would’ve, could’ve, should’ve’ attitude, it was Oravainen’s quiet determination and strong training ethic that saw him swim into national contention at his first state titles in 1962. 

Yet another dream came true that year when he was selected, alongside Olympian and Mount Isa swimmer, Bill Burton, for the Australian Swimming Team to compete in the British Empire and Commonwealth Games in Perth. 

Oravainen had been swimming in Burton’s wake for several years and he knew that this was the year that he could and would swim into medal contention – a Silver Medal in the 440 yards (400 metres) Individual Medley. 

Australia added another Silver Medal to its tally and Mount Isa had a second Australian and International Swimming Champion (Oravainen brought home a Silver Medal while Burton came home with two Silver Medals).

Such was the friendly competition between the two swimmers that they would continue to vie for selection at each tier of swimming championships for several years although not always on an equal financial footing. 

This was evidenced when three of the four Mount Isa swimmers named in the 1963 Queensland Team were denied financial assistance to attend the Australian Swimming Championships in Perth that year. 

How the Queensland Amateur Swimming Association came to its conclusion was one that was sorely contested by Mount Isa Amateur Swimming Club, to no avail; leaving Oravainen and his club mates Lennette Jones and Lyn Abbot having to finance their own expenses to compete at the Australian National Titles in Perth. 

Burton, along with his other team mates, had his full expenses covered by the QASA.

Following this debacle, Oravainen moved to Sydney, for eighteen months, to train under coach Don Talbot in the lead up to the Australian National Titles and possible selection for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. 

Fortuitously, Talbot was named second coach to Arthur Cusack, national coach, of the Australian Olympic Swimming Team. 

Cusack had earlier coached Burton to Olympic standard and now Talbot was coach to Oravainen. 

Another dream was realised when Oravainen joined the Australian Swimming Team at their Olympic training camp in Ayr. 

Once again, his Finnish trait of strength in adversity came to the fore as he doubled his training schedule and lengthened his swim coverage to five miles per day to make up for his late preparation due to a thumb injury before leaving Sydney. 

On the eve of the team’s departure for Tokyo, Talbot, was not confident about Oravainen’s times or inclusion in the men’s medley relay team.

 “The Australian men’s medley relay team is not strong this year without Murray Rose and the Americans are our main worry.

“John will be very fortunate to make the finals”, Talbot said.

Reward: John Oravainen with his Silver Medal from the 1962 Perth British Empire and Commonwealth Games. Photographs supplied by John Oravainen.

Reward: John Oravainen with his Silver Medal from the 1962 Perth British Empire and Commonwealth Games. Photographs supplied by John Oravainen.

But, Oravainen surprised everyone when he swam into the semi-finals, not in his beloved medley event but in the 200 metre breaststroke event in Tokyo; he was narrowly beaten into fourth place in the semis, in a time of two minutes 38.3 seconds, and narrowly missed going through to the finals. 

Never one to brook excuses for his performances, Oravainen was later to acknowledge that nerves got the better of him as he stood on the starting blocks for each of his races.

“The atmosphere at the Olympic Games was overwhelming for a kid from the bush”, he told the Mount Isa Mail on his return home to Isa.

The Tokyo 1964 Games brought the Olympics to Asia for the first time, expanding the multi-cultural community both in competition and spectators.

“Even the Perth Commonwealth Games didn’t prepare me for the magnitude of the Olympics and the Opening and Closing Ceremonies were experiences I won’t ever forget,” Oravainen said.

Within weeks of returning home to Mount Isa, he welcomed fellow Olympic swimming champions, Kevin Berry and Bob Windle to the Mount Isa Memorial Swimming Pool. 

Berry, the 200 metre Olympic butterfly champion and Windle, the Olympic 1500 metre titleholder along with local Olympians, Oravainen and Burton, brought a fleeting glimpse of world class swimming to the mining town in the spinifex.

Just six weeks later, at the State Swimming Championships, Oravainen won the open 200 metre breaststroke final from record-holder and 1960 Olympian, Bill Burton, in one minute 14.7 seconds, but failed to break Burton’s state record. 

And just as Oravainen swam in the wake of Bill Burton for many years, he soon had another local lad extend his strokes with an eye on future Olympic representation of his own in Bill Sweetenham.

As the migrant lad from Finland, who overcame the obstacles of learning a new language and lifestyle in a new country, and dreamed the improbable dream to compete at an Olympic Games, John Oravainen went on to achieve each of his goals with precision and dedication; traits which ought to be acknowledged, not as one of the forgotten Mount Isa Olympians, but as a much deserved Mount Isa Sporting Champion. 

Article researched and written by community contributor Kim-Maree Burton. 

Photographs supplied by John Oravainen.

Information sourced from Australian Olympic Committee, Courier Mail and Mount Isa Mail newspapers, and John Oravainen.

The history column is a regular column on the rich and diverse history of Mount Isa and the North West region which is featured in the Saturday edition of the North West Star.