One of Australia’s least known sporting heroes changed the world in so many ways… but his mercurial swimming and other sporting feats were not much help against the guns and bombs of war!
Manly is viewed by most as a commercial, services and tourism hub surrounded by an urban sprawl. Well, it is that. Sort of. But it’s also a village.
Even twenty years ago, when I still lived in Manly, few people were aware of the village community that existed behind the facade of shoppers and beach-hungry day-trippers. Any casual observer who slipped past the front counter of Calacocci’s Milk Bar (where tourists bought ice-creams) and settled at an inside table would discover the inner world of Manly where local Australian-born Italians and Croatians argued over week-end soccer results, local estate agents and lawyers gossiped about their recent listings and cases, semi-pro and pro athletes (surfers, iron-men, rugby and rugby league players, soccer players and boxers) discussed village matters both sporting and otherwise and an array of Manly shop-keepers and business people got their coffee fix before opening their shops and office doors. The array of locals, both good and not so good, would not only chat amongst themselves but also exchanged insults with the three generations of the Calaccci family who were always on-duty serving the tourists.
One hundred years earlier Manly was also a village. It was a different one, certainly, but it had more similarities to the modern world than most would imagine. Even then it was a day-tripping tourist hub… a place where thousands of strangers bustled about on the Corso either on their way to the beach or looking for something to eat or buy. Behind the façade were the locals. Professional people. Fishermen. Boat workers. Business owners and shop keepers. Tourism and hospitality employees. The wives and children of working commuters who made their way into Sydney town by ferry every morning and came home the same way in the evening. These village people, just like Calacocci’s customers one hundred years in the future, were also sports nuts. They were among the world’s first surfers. They were champion swimmers. They were amateur life-guards. They were rugby players. They were cricketers. They played water polo. They boxed!
This was the world of Manly that welcomed one of Australian’s most interesting but least known great athletes to its shores.
Cecil Healy was born in the privileged Sydney inner-city suburb of Darlinghurst in 1882. As one of three sons born to a doting mother and a wealthy Sydney barrister he was given every opportunity to develop his athletic skills. At an early age his family moved to the Southern Highlands of NSW where he was schooled at a private school for boys. On returning to Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs he joined the East Sydney Swimming club where, under the tutelage of famous swimmer Fred Lane, young Healy began to be noticed in the pool.
Over the next ten years not only did he move to the beautiful golden beaches of Manly (to the North of Sydney town) but he developed his own version of the “Australian crawl” swimming technique that won him championships in Sydney, New South Wales and Australia in a range of swimming events and also won him a degree of world fame after successfully competing in Greece and other parts of Europe.
Healy’s greatest achievements in swimming came when he became one of Australia’s first swimmers to be selected to compete at a summer Olympic Games. In Stockholm in 1912 Healy came second to the mercurial Hawaiian Duke Kahanamoku in the 100 m freestyle event (silver medal) and won gold in the 4 X 200 m relay event. While Healy was admired for his swimming performances he won even greater admiration for his display of sportsmanship during the 100 m event. Both Kahanamoku and Healy had easily qualified for semi-finals for the competition and while Healy easily managed to qualify for the final through his semi, Kahanamoku had not arrived in time for his semi-final and had thus been excluded from the final by disqualification. Healy and several other finalists (much to the horror of several German swimmers) refused to swim until a special semi-final was organized to give the American a chance to win a place in the final. Healy got his way with the International Jury enabling Kahanamoku to win the special semi and take his place in the final. Kahanamoku went on to win the main event as well. Healy, thus, effectively argued his way out of what seemed like a certain gold medal into the second place. Kahanamoku, being a gentleman, was for ever grateful to his new Australian mate for his sporting attitude.
After the Olympics both athletes went their separate ways giving demonstrations at carnivals across Europe. Healy became much admired in swimming circles for his dedication to teaching his “Australian crawl” swimming techniques, his great sportsmanship and his swimming talent. Kahanamoku, on the other hand, became an international sporting star who was feted by royalty, politicians and the wealthy wherever he went.
After Europe, Healy returned to Manly to continue with his business life and amateur sports. While Cecil had commenced his working life as an articled clerk, at some point he had tried his hand as a commercial traveller (sales person) but now he saw his future in the “news business” working for magazines and newspapers as a news and sporting journalist. While writing sporting articles to pursue his business career Healy was continuing with his amateur swimming, his surf-shooting (body surfing) in the Manly surf, his life-saving (with the North Steyne Surf Life Saving Club), his rugby and his water polo. While Manly village life around 1912 was full of great sporting heroes, Cecil Healy would have been one of the kings of the village.
Over the previous twenty years Manly had been rapidly emerging as Australia’s surf capital. Not too many years earlier bathing in the ocean had been banned in daylight hours but the actions of swimmer/surf-lovers like Healy and many others had finally won the right for Australians to not only swim in the ocean but also to learn to shoot the breakers all up and down the eastern coast of the continent. The village of Manly not only attracted tens of thousands of people every year to experience its golden sands and crashing waves but also spurned hundreds of athletes addicted to the outdoor lifestyle. Manly was not only the home of one of the world’s best swimmers, Cecil Healy, it was also the home of many expert surf shooters (body-surfers mainly… there were a couple of people having a crack at the new sport of board riding but not many had made much progress at this stage), surf swimmers, life-savers, rugby players and water-polo players. The local swimming clubs, surf life-saving clubs, cricket clubs and rugby clubs pretty much supported each other. The surfers, swimmers and rugby players and cricketers not only knew each other… they pretty much were the same people! Manly was one of the sporting capitals of the nation.
While Healy will always be remembered as one of Australia’s first swimming and Olympic heroes and also remembered for his act of sportsmanship in the 100 m final at Stockholm his greatest achievement in terms of his influence on Australian life, culture and sport was yet to happen.
Ever since Duke Kahanamoku’s Stockholm success the Australian and New South Wales official swimming bodies had been trying to lure “The Duke” to Australia to complete at our most important swimming events. Despite invitations being issued, Kahanamoku had preferred lucrative engagements in both Europe and America to taking the long voyage to the less influential and newly federated Australia. By the summer of 1913, however, Kahanamoku had finally agreed to come to Australia and while there is no certainty of this, it is highly likely that his friendship with Cecil Healy and his respect for the sporting attitude of the plucky Australian, influenced the world’s greatest sporting superstar to make the journey.
On “The Duke’s” arrival it was the intention of the promoters of the series of swimming carnivals that Kahanamoku was to swim at that he was to be kept one hundred percent focused on civic receptions, swimming carnivals, swimming demonstrations and training. That may have been their intention but the combined wills of Australia’s greatest swimming hero (Cecil Healy) and the god of international swimming himself (Duke Kahanamoku) were not to be scoffed at. Soon after the Duke’s arrival Healy had managed to spirit “The Duke” away from his inner city hotel to a primitive surf camp called Boomerang in the tiny village of Freshwater to the North of Manly. There they both intended that Kahanamoku would befriend the locals, build himself a surf board and run a number of board riding demonstrations for the entertainment and education of the thousands who would be sure to attend. Healy himself, as promoter of these board riding events, would publish stories of the demonstrations in magazines and newspapers. Healy even went as far as to promote the first upcoming demonstration in the popular press and this set off an enormous buzz of excitement not only in Manly but throughout Sydney as a whole.
Healy’s surf board riding agenda infuriated NSW swimming officials who had invested heavily in bringing the Hawaiian to Australia and they needed to put bums on seats at the carnivals where he was competing and the events where he was carrying out swimming demonstrations. The thought of tens of thousands of fans getting a free board surfing demonstration at Freshwater then not bothering to attend the pay-at-the-door swimming events not only angered them but terrified them. Healy’s actions were threatening to turn the tour into a financial disaster. After a series of heated exchanges between Kahanamoku’s management, the NSW swimming promoters and Healy a compromise was reached where Duke would cancel his free public surfing demonstration but hold a smaller event for press only to promote surfboard riding before returning to Sydney to prepare for his upcoming swimming carnivals. Once Kahanamoku had completed his key swimming events he would be free to return to Freshwater to demonstrate surfing to his heart’s content!
This is precisely what happened. Kahanamoku thrilled the public with his Sydney Domain Swimming Pool appearance where, before a packed grandstand, he defeated all comers in the sprint events. On completing his Sydney swimming duties, however, he was soon back at Freshwater with his new Manly mates ready to set the Australian world alight with his demonstrations of surf board riding! Cecil Healy must have been delighted. Thousands of Manly and Sydney folk came to Freshwater Beach on the day to witness the great man demonstrate his remarkable board riding prowess. Surf boats, champion swimmers and renowned body surfers entered the water with the Hawaiian to escort him “out the back” but his powerful paddling left them all behind. By the time the entourage had made it beyond the shore break Kahanamoku had already caught his first wave and was standing proudly erect on the wooden craft as he angled it towards the Southern end of the beach. While the crowded Freshwater Beach had been initially oddly silent, when Kahanamoku completed his first “shoot”, the many thousands present stood to attention and clapped and cheered for several minutes. They were not just cheering the amazing Hawaiian. All present seemed to sense that this surfing thing was going to become very important to Manly and to Australia and they seemed to sense that this moment was very important in Australian cultural history. Kahanamoku knew it too. For many years he talked to anyone who would listen about the amazing day he had had at Freshwater.
The Duke surfed on for several hours. He performed tricks to delight the crowd. He stood on his head on the board while negotiating the shore break. He even took one of Manly’s best young female body surfers and swimmers, Isabel Letham, for a surf with him. After his surf he spent hours on the beach with locals discussed surfing techniques and board designs. Some have assumed over the years that Duke Kahanamoku was the first to surf board ride in Australia. That is certainly not true. Manly already had one or two pretty competent board riders. These board shooters were very much in the minority. Surfing had been growing at an enormous rate in Manly but the primary sport at this stage was still body-shooting. But it is certainly true that “The Duke” and his board surfing won the hearts of the people present on that day. Our own swimming and body surfing hero, Cecil Healy, knew that he would. That is why Healy brought Kahanamoku to Manly and encouraged him to share with everyone present his remarkable surfing way of life. Healy and Kahanamoku together infected Manly and the rest of Australia with the surfing bug and that integral part of Australian culture is just as strong today as it has ever been in Australian history.
I suspect Cecil Healy would have gone on to acquire a surfboard himself and add the art of board riding to his already impressive catalogue of sporting achievements… if the first world war had not intervened and robbed Manly of one of its first sporting heroes. Like so many other Manly residents Healy felt the call and enlisted in the army to fight. Initially he served as a quartermaster sergeant in Egypt and France. Later he joined the officer training school at Cambridge University where he not only won his commission as a Second Lieutenant but also played rugby, rowed, swam, boxed and played water polo for his college. Healy was then sent to the front and died in his very first action at the battle of the Somme. He died only a few weeks before the end of the war.
It is odd that Cecil Healy is not more well-known in the history of Australian sport. His legacy is huge. He was one of Australia’s first Olympic champions. He was renowned for his expertise in a range of sports including swimming, surf swimming and body surfing, rowing, rugby football, boxing and water polo. He won respect and international renown for his sportsmanship in placing honour above winning when he argued for Kahanamoku to be granted a place the 100 m final at Stockholm. He was one of the most prominent in the struggle to advance the cause of surf bathing and surfing in general in Sydney in its early years. He promoted the visit of Duke Kahanamoku to Australia and was the main instigator of the Duke’s board riding exhibitions which had so much impact on the early growth of surfing and the surfing lifestyle that has become so important in Australia. Just as significantly, after his death, he was feted by the media, by politicians and by historians as a man who symbolized the ANZAC hero… the mythological character at the heart of how Australians perceived themselves throughout the twenties, thirties, forties and fifties.
All talk of ANZAC heroes aside, Healy and others like him, had a huge impact on villages like Manly where people not only lived together but played together. The hole in the heart of Manly must have been huge when so many of its young people never returned to its cafes, its pubs, its churches, its rugby teams, its swimming clubs, its beaches and surf lifesaving clubs.