It was a sight to behold; the old straw hat bobbing down the lap lane, swishing around at the end to return again, lap after lap, seemingly to just sit on the unbroken water.
On closer examination, it sat atop the chlorine effected green-tinged blonde hair of one of Mount Isa’s favourite swimming sons – Bill Burton.
With only weeks out from the 1960 Queensland Swimming Championships, 18 year old Burton was unwavering in his mindset to dominate the three levels of competition - club, state and national - for selection in the Australian Swimming Team for that year’s Rome Summer Olympics.
He had started swimming within months of when the Mount Isa Memorial Swimming Pool opened in December 1949, and soon joined the All Stars Swimming Club. And when Noel Dowling started coaching, Burton joined Jim Cameron and Graham Morgan on the training team for the State Swimming Teams.
Along with Burton, who had previously competed at the State Titles, the other swimmers named to represent Mount Isa in the 1960 Queensland Swimming Championships were Noel Muller, Jim Cameron (senior men’s events), Graham Morgan (junior events), the Bendall twins (Rod and Ron) in the sub-junior events with Beryl Mason (open women) and Jeanette Muzic (under 12 girls).
Dowling’s confidence in Burton was validated when he swam to an easy win in the open 110 yards (100 metres) breaststroke which he won by 8 feet to equal the race record which he set in the heats at State Titles. But on the last turn of the 220 yards (200 metres) breaststroke race, Burton did the unthinkable - he gulped water - making him gag as he gasped for breath and tried to regain his breathing and stroke co-ordination.
He has said he was oblivious to the encouragement from the spectators, his mind had only one mantra – outswim Victorian breaststroke champion and race leader, Alan Humphreys, into first place; he did by a touch! Australian swim selector, Bill Holland, said after the swim, “This boy is in world class. I think he will beat world record holder, Terry Gathercole next month in the National Titles.”
And he did! The Mount Isa team with a swag of medals, amongst them, was jubilant on its return not least with Burton named in the State Team for the 1960 Australian Nationals at the North Sydney Pool.
Burton, an MIM apprentice diesel mechanic, joined Murray Rose, John Konrads, Dawn Fraser and Ilsa Konrads in the training camp of twenty-eight swimmers named in the 1960 Australian Swimming Team.
As he lapped Townsville’s Tobruk Pool, the Mount Isa Mail newspaper kept their readers informed on his training progress, race results and followed the selection finals with the proud announcement …. ‘Burton for Rome’.
And as they did four years earlier for Noel Hazard, the Mount Isa community of 13,357 people were ambitiously fund-raising to support him in his endeavour to swim into gold for the copper town.
The ethos of the modern Olympics as designed by Baron Pierre de Coubertin was to provide an equal platform for amateur athletes in which to compete. It would be sixteen years on from the 1960 Rome Olympics before the USA Basketball Dream Team broke through with their professional status thereby opening the Games to the ‘professionalism’ status of today.
And be their stature amateur or professional, athletes will succumb to nerves at some stage in their sporting career and Burton was no exception. In Rome, as he stood on the block waiting for the starter’s gun for his first race, the 220 yards Men’s Breaststroke Heats, nerves overcame him and he finished fourth.
Still with a possible medal in sight, he was named in the 4x110 yards (100 metres) Men’s Medley Relay Team, along with John Carroll, Kevin Berry and Geoffrey Shipton, to place first in the heats and record the second fastest race time across the heats which secured Australia a place in the finals.
Disappointment at not being selected to swim the breaststroke leg in the medley relay finals Team turned to jubilation when the finals team swam into second place and Silver. All seven team members received a Silver Medal for their placement. Australia had another Silver Medal in swimming and Mount Isa proudly welcomed home their son – Billy Burton – the youngest team member of the 1960 Australian Swimming Team – with his Olympic Silver Medal.
Following the Olympics, Burton threatened to boycott the 1961 State Swimming titles owing to a feud with the Queensland Amateur Swimming Association about his affiliation. Burton wanted to continue to swim for his home town, Mount Isa, while the Q.A.S.A. said he must swim for the Valley (Brisbane) Club where he was then training.
“I swim for Mount Isa or not at all. Mount Isa raised twelve hundred pounds to send me to the Olympic Games,” he said.
“Anyhow,” said Burton, “I am a financial member of the Mount Isa Club and have not paid any subscription fees to Valley.”
He had his sights on once again representing Australia at the 1962 Perth British Empire and Commonwealth Games. And when the Australian Team was finally announced, Mount Isa not only had Burton flying its flag but also the Flying Finn, John Oravainen.
The juxtaposed names of the British Empire and the Commonwealth Games in Perth in 1962 was agood omen for both Burton and Oravainen as they swam into contention in their respective races; Burton brought home two Silver Medals and Oravainen one Silver.
The following year, 1963, Burton was named in the first Australian Men’s Swimming Team to tour Japan, Russia, East Germany, Norway, Sweden, Denmark and England and swam into his favourite colours – gold, silver and bronze. Bill Burton proved that with his short swift strokes and his old straw hat, he was a swimming force to be acknowledged!
Researched and written by Kim-Maree Burton www.kimmareeburton. Information sourced from the AOC archives, Swimming Australia, Courier-Mail, Mount Isa Mail and Townsville’s Tobruk Swimming Pool. Photographs courtesy of AOC archives, Mount Isa Mail and MIMAG.