For 24 hours Rebecca Perrott was the toast of the swimming world. She travelled to Montreal in 1976, just turned 15 and a swimmer of unusual potential. The 400m freestyle was held early in the swim programme and the unassuming Wellingtonian stunned swimming followers by chopping nearly eight seconds off her previous best to record 4min 15.71s. This also sliced almost six seconds off Shane Gould’s Olympic record and made her the fastest qualifier for the final. “It was a shock to me,” Perrott recalled. “I went into the race trying to do my best time. I thought I’d need to do my absolute best just to make the final, so there was no holding back. When I found out I’d broken the record and was the fastest qualifier I couldn’t believe it.” The final was held the following day and Perrott finished fourth. Her time of 4min 14.76s, another personal best, left her just 0.16s away from a medal. East German Petra Thumer won, setting a world record, followed by American Shirley Babashoff and Canadian Shannon Smith. “Even after the heats I wasn’t really expecting a medal,” Perrott says. “I thought I might already have had my best race, and I knew some others could go faster. I was pleased to take another second off my best time.” To be so close to the bronze was frustrating, though. “At the end I had one of those awkward decisions, whether to glide in or do one more quick stroke. I can’t recall which option I chose, but I wish I’d chosen the other! It was such a small margin between third and fourth.” The East German women dominated the swimming at the Montreal Games. Kornelia Ender, Thumer, Ulrike Richter, Hannelore Anke and company swam fantastic times. We now know they were being given illegal performance-enhancing anabolic steroids. Perrott remained remarkably sanguine about the situation. “At the time we didn’t think much about the drugs. That all came out later. The East Germans were much bigger and musclier than the other women and some of them had deep voices. I remember being in a changing room and hearing these voices behind me and thinking I might have gone into the men’s rooms by mistake. At the time, though, I just accepted it because that’s how it was.” Perrott left Montreal having set New Zealand records for the 100m, 200m and 400m freestyle. Strangely, Perrott, born in Wellington in 1981, had dipped her toe in international competition at the 1974 Christchurch Commonwealth Games while competing for Fiji – her father was based there at the time. The 12-year-old (the youngest competitor at the Games) hardly made a splash in the pool, but did get to see superstars like Michael Wenden and New Zealand’s gold medallists, Jaynie Parkhouse and Mark Treffers. It set her out on a long, successful and somewhat frustrating career. Once the family returned to Wellington, she was coached by Tony Keenan and the Wellington Girls’ College student’s story attracted the attention of former Cook Strait swimmer Keith Hancox. It was Perrott who gave Hancox the inspiration to set up the New Zealand Sports Foundation. After 1976, Perrott was acknowledged as a world-class swimmer, and it was no surprise when she was a dominant figure at the 1978 Edmonton Commonwealth Games. She claimed the gold medal in the 200m freestyle, silver in the 200m individual medley, and bronzes in the 400m and 800m freestyle. New Zealand swimming fans could see the tall Wellingtonian was just reaching her peak, as was Auckland backstroker Gary Hurring, and they eagerly awaited the 1980 Moscow Olympics. Unfortunately, as with so many other Olympic hopefuls that year, Hurring and Perrott never got to compete in Moscow. They were victims of the American-led boycott which caused all but a few canoeists and modern pentathlete Brian Newth to be withdrawn from the New Zealand team for Moscow. Hurring was devastated, but Perrott, a phlegmatic personality, was more accepting of the situation. In fact, she had a certain sympathy for the boycott, because she felt the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was wrong. She felt that any successes she might have achieved in Moscow would have been of less value because the Americans and some other leading swimming countries were absent. “They would have been soft medals, and wouldn’t really have meant that much,” she said. “I don’t feel bitter about it when I look back. It would have been nice to win an Olympic medal, but I moved on and am happy with the way things are. I wouldn’t want to go back and change things.” Perrott departed top-level swimming the following year, but was certainly not finished with international sport. She went on to represent New Zealand with distinction at surf lifesaving for several years and then became a real force in masters swimming winning numerous world titles. Perrott was awarded the Lonsdale Cup in 1978 and was honoured with an MBE the same year. She was voted into the New Zealand Sports Hall of Fame in 1990.