The legend that is Laurie Lawrence today turns 80!
Laurie is one of a kind, a tireless advocate of learn to swim and coach of countless champions including world record holders Tracey Wickham, Steve Holland, Duncan Armstrong and Jon Sieben.
He also managed to play halfback for the Wallabies with half of one lung missing, although when he made his debut on a tour of New Zealand his presence left the crowd somewhat disappointed.
“All these kiwis had come to see Ken Catchpole, the greatest halfback of his era. Ken got injured during the warmup. As I ran onto the field everyone booed,” Laurie quipped.
It was that missing lung that led Laurie to swimming and started a lifelong love affair that has seen him inspire generations.
His father Alan “stumpy” Lawrence was a publican in Townsville but when his son had part of his lung removed and doctors advised him to take up swimming, dad switched jobs and became the manager of the soon to be famous Tobruk Memorial Pool.
It was there, in Townsville that Forbes Carlile, Frank Guthrie, Don Talbot and Sam Hereford hatched a plan.
With no warm water in Sydney or Melbourne they decided to take the 1956 Olympic Swimming team to Townsville to train through the winter. That team would go on to be the most successful in History, winning every Freestyle event on the program.
“I had to get out of my bed because we billeted Jon Henricks (gold in the 100 free),” Laurie said. “I can still remember Forbes, giving the kids oxygen, doing core work with them and all his scientific testing.”
Forbes and Ursula Carlile testing world record holder Terry Gathercole in Townsville
The team of 56, which included Dawn Fraser, Jon Henricks, Murray Rose and Lorraine Crapp, won 8 of the 13 events on the Olympic program, so 61% of the gold medals on offer.
While it’s impossible to compare eras, to put that in some perspective Australia won 9 (25%) of the 36 events on the program in Tokyo and the team was hailed as our most successful ever. Hold the same number of events in 1956 and its fair to argue Australia would have walked away with 22 Gold medals.
The success of the team in 1956 started a tradition and every year Australia’s best swimmers would head to Townsville and a young Laurie Lawrence watched in awe as they broke world records in training.
Wind the clock forward to 1973 and there was Laurie Lawrence, poolside in Belgrade at the World Championships coaching Steve Holland as he first broke two world records in one race. Both with his feet.
In the 1500m Freestyle, Holland broke the 800m world record and then lost count on his way to the 1500m. At lap 30 he tumbled turned in a new world record and went another two laps. At the end of those two laps, he tumble turned again only to look up and see his coach screaming that it was time to stop.
Laurie had also been frantically raising his fist to the Americans to say “get that up ya” in the sort of celebration that makes Dean Boxall look shy.
It would be the same story when Armstrong and Sieben shocked the world at the 88 and 84 Olympics and when he mentored Tracey to her heroics over 400m and 800m freestyle. Laurie’s response when Armstrong won the 200 freestyle in 1988 having been ranked 43 in the world before the event was “stuff the silver we’re here for Gold.”
Laurie with his book Going for gold.
Laurie went on to be a key member and motivator of Australian Olympic teams for years to come. Many an Aussie Dolphin has been moved to tears and inspired to greatness by the poem he would recite to welcome the Olympic team into the village.
Yet Laurie’s greatest achievement has been the countless lives he has saved by championing learn to swim with his famous “kids alive do the five” campaign.
Laurie learnt about baby swimming from our own founder Forbes Carlile “I didn’t believe in baby teaching, then I had my own daughter and got interested, of course Forbes had already started,” he said.
“There he was one morning, about 6am on the doorstep,” Forbes recalled years later “He said, I’m not here to see your swimmers I’m here to see your babies.”
And later that morning they walked across the lawn to Sydney’s first indoor teaching pool at Cross street in Ryde established in the backyard by Forbes and wife Ursula.
“I couldn’t believe it, I was hooked,” Laurie said. Since then, Laurie has been tireless in protecting children from drowning, it’s a passion that sees him as enthusiastic today as he’s ever been. Laurie is still in the water with the energy of that young boy who fell in love with swimming at Tobruk pool.
Laurie Lawrence, member of the Australian Sports Hall of Fame and the International Swimming Hall of Fame, we salute you.