Jean Stewart Born 1930
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.
But only Jean Stewart (or Hurring as she became on her marriage in 1957) of this illustrious group won an Olympic medal, the 100m backstroke bronze at Helsinki in 1952. She also claimed Empire Games medals in 1950 and 1954.
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.
“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.