Jean Stewart was the central figure in the first family of New Zealand swimming. Her mother, Mary, was the first woman to swim for Otago at a national championship. Her husband, Lincoln, was an Empire Games medallist. Her two sisters were national junior champions. And her son, Gary, won a Commonwealth Games gold medal and a world championship silver.
Today's swimmers would most baulk at many of the handicaps Stewart had to overcome.
She trained in the 33 1/3-yard the Tepid Baths in Dunedin, so virtually never got to use a 50m pool. And travel in those days was a time-consuming process. To get to an event in the North Island involved an arduous train trip, a Cook Strait ferry crossing, and then another train trip.
Stewart was a swimming pioneer. She and future husband Lincoln Hurring were the first New Zealand swimmers to put in huge hours of pool training.
"I was inspired by the beautiful film of the 1936 Berlin Olympics," she says. "The first time I saw that film, when I was 14, the whole theatre screamed when Jack Lovelock took the lead in the 1500m final. It sparked something in me, made me want to go to an Olympics."
Strangely, Stewart was initially scared of the water. Her older sisters would throw her in to force her to swim. "I discovered that if I lay on my back it was easier, and that's how I got started in backstroke."
By 1952, Stewart, who grew up in Dunedin, was attending training college. She would bike to the Tepid Baths three times a day to train in the intervals between swimming sessions. "My training was by guess and by God. My coach, Bill Wallace, was more of an enthusiast than a swimming expert. He knew about horse racing, so he trained me like a horse. I did what is now known as interval training, though it was fairly rudimentary."
Stewart says what made all the difference for the team to Helsinki was the fact that they travelled by plane. "It was a slow trip, with lots of stops, but it was infinitely better than going by boat.
“Our Olympic team had no swimming coach or manager. We looked after ourselves. In Sydney on the way over, I had to train in the harbour because the only pool we could find was available only to men. In Singapore, the next stop, we did get a nice big pool, but the water was incredibly hot, like a bath. We arrived in London three weeks before the Olympics, but again couldn’t find a suitable pool. We didn’t even have a stopwatch. We really had no idea how we were going.
“Poor Lincoln. He had not been selected early and had gained selection only by continually breaking records. He’d had no break after racing every week and he got thinner and thinner and sicker and sicker. He got very run-down and developed tonsillitis. In Helsinki he was put in hospital and had to leave hospital to compete.”
The two New Zealand swimmers were not allocated much time in the Olympic training pool, but foiled officials by resting in the middle of the pool, rather than at the ends, so they could not be ejected.
Finally it came to race day. Stewart had no idea about her opposition, except that the Dutch, especially world record-holder Geertje Wielema, were strong.
“I felt a big responsibility on the day of the heat. I had to justify my selection, though it wasn’t as bad as what Yvette Williams faced. She was such a big name in New Zealand that she really needed to win the gold medal to live up to expectations.”
Stewart was in lane one and was surprised to find the two lanes next to her empty. She swam as fast as she could and finished second to Wielema. Her time was the fourth-fastest overall. All day she waited to find out if there would be a semi-final.
“We were only swimmers. No officials would talk to us. They would deal only with managers, but we didn’t have a manager there. Finally an English journalist, Pat Beresford, asked me what was going on. When I told her she went and asked and found out there was no semi-final and that I was into the final.
“Before the final I was desperate to improve from fourth to third. Fourth is nothing; third is a medal. I made a slow start in the final – that was always a problem for me. But I finished well and touched behind Joan Harrison, of South Africa, and Geertje Wielema. Another Dutch swimmer, Johanna de Korte, finished at the same time as me.
“An official called out to me that I was third. I got very excited about that. Then another official said that was wrong and that I was fourth. Two of us had the same time and it came down to the judges’ decision. Finally, after quite a wait, the decision came out and I was third. That was a real thrill. It was also a great relief, because I really felt pressure to prove I should have been selected.”
Though she continued to compete for another four years, the 1952 Olympic bronze medal marked the peak of her career. "I worked fulltime after that, and didn't have the time for training."
After missing out on the final at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, Stewart retired, but before she did so, she embarked on a tour of the South Island with Lincoln Hurring and it was then that these two, who'd been classmates at Dunedin North Intermediate School many years earlier, fell in love.
They settled in Auckland and remained heavily involved in swimming, Jean concentrating on the learn-to-swim classes and Lincoln as a coach.