By Jenny Donnet OLY
The tiny teen smiles down from the platform. Even from 10 metres below, the spectators can see the soft kindness in the blue eyes. Then the normal spectator reaction occurs: “She’s so small! She will get hurt diving from such a height!” But that concern is soon dispelled as she leaps into the air with the grace of a swan, flying in those perfect moments of freedom before she straightens to slice through the water with the precision of an arrow hitting a bullseye.
Irene Donnet, daughter of Tom Donnet Snr and Pearl Galloway, big sister to Peggy and Tom Jnr, grew up at the Richmond Baths in Melbourne, immersed year-round in a multitude of sports. After losing Peggy to Scarlet Fever, the young children concentrated on swimming under the watchful eye of Tom Donnet Snr. Irene, finding it difficult to build her stamina, moved to diving. Little brother Tom followed his big sister and soon the Donnet kids were known for their flying prowess. People would come to the Richmond Baths to watch these young kids do ‘tricky stuff’.
Irene’s first recollection of admiring crowds was whilst diving in a New Year’s Day exhibition at a swimming carnival in Loch, Victoria. It was at that point she realised she loved “showing off” and that diving was an acceptable way for a quiet, mild mannered kid to do just that. As she got older, showing off was also a great way to attract the attention of a handsome young swimmer named Dave Ellerton. The Donnets spent the next decade giving diving exhibitions and running swimming and diving clinics around country Victoria.
Irene’s training consisted of diving into water and jumping off the first “dryboard” in Australia. Diving boards in the 1930s were long planks of wood, their ends covered with coconut matting, and Tom Snr had erected one in the gym at the back of the Richmond Baths. Irene would spend hours jumping and spinning from the board, landing on her feet on the ground.
At the age of 15, Irene became Open National Champion on springboard. She considered herself a springboard diver, however, she was also a strong tower diver. When, many years later, a young Jenny Donnet asked her Aunt which height she preferred, her answer was instant. “Springboard, Dear. I used to get terribly nervous on the diving tower but I was more afraid of disappointing my Grandfather. In those days, we dived from all heights; it was too expensive to go [… to competitions …] for just for one event”.
By age 20, Irene represented Australia in the springboard and platform events at the 1938 British Empire and Commonwealth Games in Sydney. This was the biggest event she had ever competed in. She loved the cosmopolitan atmosphere of the Village, meeting athletes from around the Empire. Fiercely Australian, she was deeply honoured to wear the Aussie blazer with its Coat of Arms. No stranger to crowds, Irene performed superbly in the springboard event to win the title of Empire and Commonwealth Games Champion! The self-described springboard specialist followed up with a silver medal in the tower event.
The following year, Irene flew to Darwin to marry her long-time love, Dave Ellerton, now a Squadron Leader in the RAAF. This love would last a lifetime. With the 1940 Olympics cancelled due to the escalation of World War II, Irene turned her attention towards family. Over the next few years, the Ellerton family grew to six, with the birth of four children.
When the 1948 Olympics were announced, Irene’s need to dive resurfaced. After all, behind her mild mannered exterior was a woman driven to excellence. At age 30, a mother of four, she competed in the Victorian Open Championships. Another diver in that event was 19-year-old Barbara McAulay who would later become Irene’s sister-in-law and life long friend. Irene went on to the Australian Open Championships, narrowly missing a place on the Olympic Team.
After the war, Irene and Dave joined the family business, helping to build and teach at the Donnets’ purpose-built learn to swim pool in Rose Street, Armadale. Years later, they managed a second venue in the outer east, before the unassuming champion and her husband retired to the sleepy seaside village of San Remo.
The epitome of the Quiet Achiever, Irene Donnet was Mother Earth, Wonder Woman and a pioneer for women all rolled into one. But it was pointless trying to tell her this! She always responded with a shake of the head, a little half laugh and a flick of the hand as she said “Oh no I’m not, dear. I’ve had a fortunate life.”