By David Tarbotton
As he celebrates his birthday today we reflect on the career of legendary Australian swimmer Mike Wenden AM MBE, the most decorated male swimmer in Commonwealth history.
Wenden remains the only men’s swimmer to have won three consecutive gold medals in the same individual event at the Commonwealth Games. With 13 medals, including nine gold, he is the most successful male swimmer ever in Games history. He is also the only Australian swimmer to have won the Olympic 100 metre and 200 metre freestyle titles.
Growing up in the south-western suburbs of Sydney, he admitted he had poor hand-eye coordination, dashing his hopes at cricket and tennis. As a taller kid, he was physically targeted on the rugby league field ensuring his interest waned in contact sport. Swimming came into focus, partly as he wanted to defeat one of the bullies in his class who was a swimming champion. For his 11th birthday he was given a season’s swim coaching fees but he soon quit, sighting the water was too cold and the coach too tough. But a broken leg a year later brought him back to the pool for rehab. Within a year he had won a state 50 metre freestyle title and over the next couple of years, there were more state titles and records as he became the first 14-year-old to break 60 seconds for the 100 metre freestyle. A major breakthrough was in the summer of 1966 when he was aged 16 he won the NSW state title in an Australian open record time of 54.2 seconds. He went on to win the national title.
He made his international debut, while still only 16, at the Kingston 1966 British Empire and Commonwealth Games. Using his unstylish windmill stroke, he clocked a Games record time of 54.0 seconds to win his heat of the 110 yards by over three seconds. He went on to win three gold in the 110 yards freestyle and two freestyle relays. Unfortunately, the medley relay team was disqualified.
Over the next two years, he competed his high school certificate and commenced a commerce degree at the University of NSW. He was selected for the Mexico 1968 Olympics and in preparation for the unknown effects of the high-altitude, he swam 15,000 metres per day in training. Upon arrival in Mexico he struggled with the altitude as his heart was racing casting doubt over his participation. After two weeks his pulse settled down and he was cleared to compete. Still in his teens he went into the 100 metre freestyle an outsider, ranked sixth in the world, but improved through the rounds winning the final in a world record and defeated one of the future greats and nine-time Olympic gold medallist Mark Spitz.
In the 200 metre freestyle he also won in an Olympic record, and defeating the race favourite, seven-time Olympic Gold medallist Don Schollander. Wenden won two more medals in the relays.
After the Games in 1969, he ‘gave swimming away’ but just prior to the 1970 state championships he was back in the water and although still unfit, won the national 100 metre and 200 metre freestyle titles. He was fit by July ready for the Edinburgh 1970 Commonwealth Games, where he won four gold and one silver medals, including the 100/200 freestyle double. After the Games he withdrew from swimming to concentrate on studies, but was tempted to return for the 1972 Olympics. It was initially a struggle, as he was defeated in the state championships, but he would win the nationals titles and secured selection. At the Games in Munich, he ran into Mark Spitz at his peak and finished outside the medals in Munich. Again, there were rumours of retirement and officials and selectors even suggested he give it away. Family and business were now the priority in his life, but his wife Narelle, a professional coach, convinced him to compete at the Christchurch 1974 Commonwealth Games. It was a perfect swansong for Wenden, winning five medals, including two gold. For the third consecutive Games he won the 100 metre freestyle an achievement unequalled in men’s swimming in Commonwealth Games history. His 13 medals was also the most by any male swimmer in Games history, only bettered by Susie O’Neill with 15.
In Christchurch, New Zealand Swimming broke with protocol and presented him an award for his ‘outstanding contribution to world swimming’.
STATISTICS – Mike Wenden AM MBE
Commonwealth Games (1966, 1970, 1974): Gold – 9, Silver – 3, Bronze – 1, Total – 13 medals.
Olympic Games (1968, 1972): Gold – 2, Silver – 1, Bronze – 1, Total – 4 medals.
World records: six
Australian Championships: 11 individual, 16 team.
Most Medals Commonwealth Games – Swimming men
Mike Wenden (AUS) 9G, 3S, 1B – T13
Ian Thorpe (AUS) 9G, 1S, 0B – T10
Geoff Huegill (AUS) 6G, 1S, 0B – T7
Andrew Baildon (AUS) 6G, 0S, 2B – T8
Graham Smith (CAN) 6G, 0S, 0B – T6