A story from the 1958 Empire Games in Cardiff

The 2014 Commonwealth Games up in Scotland are now up and running.

It was about this time last summer that I started thinking of these Games and Games past. It’s not that I competed in it or anything like that – but I would have liked to. My forte way back in the late 1950s was cross-country running. I was youth county standard and I think I had the potential to be pretty good at it at that time but there were too many barriers to my training that I won’t bore you with now. But I do know someone who was good enough to represent their country in those 1958 games in Cardiff – but more of that later.

Wales made their debut in the inaugural British Empire Games in Hamilton, Ontario Canada in August 1930 where they won 2 silver and 1 bronze medals. It was at the 1938 gathering in Sydney that brought its first gold medals: athletics and boxing providing the honours. The capital city of Cardiff hosted the Games in 1958 and the home gold medal hero was Howard Winstone who won the men’s bantamweight division in the boxing ring.

There was great excitement in Wales. When the Games were actually award to Wales it was only 7/8 years after the war had ended. It was something for people to look forward to. It created jobs and money was put into sport. Cardiff Arms Park (home of Welsh rugby) was chosen as the Games stadium and a magnificent Olympic sized pool was built. Interest in sport just took off. For all competitions standards had to be reached, and there was fierce competition for places in the various sports teams.

The 6th games meeting – by now called the British Empire and Commonwealth Games – marked the largest sporting event ever held in Wales – it was also the smallest country ever to host the Games. Cardiff had had to wait 12 years longer than originally scheduled to become host of the Games, as the 1946 event was cancelled because of the World War. Nine sports were included in these Games – athletics, boxing, cycling, fencing, lawn bowls, rowing, swimming and diving, weightlifting and wrestling.

In total thirty-five nations sent 1,130 athletes and 228 officials to the Games; and 23 of the competing nations won medals including, for the first time, Singapore, Ghana, Kenya and the Isle of Man. Many said the true legacy of the Cardiff Games was that new things had become possible for tiny nations – and nowhere was that felt more strongly than in the host city. One should remember that Cardiff was not made a city until 1905, and not proclaimed the capital of Wales until 1955. It is claimed that it was only as a result of the success of the Wales team in these Games that the British government officially recognise the Red Dragon as the flag of Wales. The Welsh team manager – rugby winger and 1948 silver medallist sprinter, Ken Jones – said that “The triumph of Wales and Cardiff in staging the sixth British Empire and Commonwealth Games is now history – and history that will ring down the years to come.”

Swimming and diving at Cardiff’s old Empire Pool were among nine sports at the Games. It was also the first competition since the reality of a disintegrating British Empire had prompted the organisers to restyle themselves as the British Empire and Commonwealth Games.

Bit by bit over the past 12 months I have tried to build a picture of the young lady I mentioned earlier. She is quite reticent about it all so I am calling her Shannon. This is her story pretty much as she has told me together with additional information I have tracked down and she has provided.

Shannon’s father was a very good sportsman having played high standard rugby; cricket for his county’s Colts team; and tennis at county level. He started taking Shannon to the pool on a regular basis when she was quite young, and by the time she was 6 she had become a competent swimmer demonstrating a great natural ability. Two years later she joined the local swimming club and was soon asked to join in the training sessions. These sessions initially were for half an hour during the club sessions but expanded bit by bit so that, still short of her 10th birthday, she started competing in inter-school races, winning inter-club races and swimming for the county.

In 1950 she had started training seriously with a coach called Bill Cambrey. He was coaching 15-20 swimmers including John Brockway who had won the British National Championships 100 yard back-stroke championships in 1948/49/50 and would win again in 1951 and, after the distance changed to 110 yards in 1953/54/55. He also won the 1954 British Empire & Commonwealth Games 110 yards back stroke title in Vancouver. Sharing this same coach was ‘Pip’ Linton – another Olympic swimmer who had won the women’s National 100 yard freestyle in 1950 & 51 and the 220 yard freestyle in 1950. Shannon remembers these sessions being really serious & that they were made to train hard – five days a week after school; two hours on Sundays were spent in the gym & swimming. The training was nothing like the present day though – for a start it was not professional. The older swimmers and athletes had full work commitments or were students at college or, like Shannon, still at school.

Shannon won the Welsh National Championship 100 yard freestyle title in 1952 and broke the record in doing it. However she had her sights set much higher – for her this win was not terribly exciting; all it did was make her want to train more and more. However, at this time, she changed schools – moving to Monmouth School for Girls Boarding School. The school had a pool, but it was in the boy’s school which was in the town. Shannon, of course, used that pool but not enough and her training suffered. She did have some serious training during ‘exeats’ – the two week-ends per term when they got down to serious work – and during half-terms and the holidays. Luckily she was keeping fit playing netball and tennis and doing a lot of athletics of 100 yard sprints and relays. The problem with swimming is – you have to have a pool. If there is no pool there can be no real practice.

It was not until 1955, after a lot of ‘pushing’ by Shannon, and with Bill Cambrey taking a hand, that the family, realising the potential Shannon had, agreed that she should leave Monmouth, go to a school in Newport and live at home. This was great and it allowed her to train – and train she did; every night after school and on Sundays. Wales had been awarded the next Commonwealth Games and all Welsh athletes wanted to make the Welsh Teams. By this time Shannon had taken part in Internationals and had swum in Belgium, Holland and many other places that have long slipped from the memory. She came 2nd in the English Schools Championships 100 yards freestyle and continued to win many junior – 11 to 18 year old – championships.

The training intensified – but was still in a very amateur way compared to the present day. It was also expensive. To get to and from training you either used trains or busses but, if you were lucky, a parent may have had a car. But, in those days, parents did not drive their children everywhere as they do today. We also had to pay to use the pool – five days a week and sometimes twice in the day – often depending on the availability of the pool – and on Sundays. It certainly wasn’t easy to get to those training sessions – but not to get there and missing training was a pretty efficient way of failing to make the team. That was something Shannon had no intention of doing.

During the time whilst she was away at school she had not able to lay the foundation of really hard training and coaching. The coaches up until the late 80s & 90s were not the very professional ones we find today. Funding for sport is now phenomenal.

In 1958 there was great excitement in Wales. When the Games were actually award to Wales it was only 7/8 years after the war had ended. It was something for people to look forward to. It created jobs and money was put into sport. Cardiff Arms Park (home of Welsh rugby) was chosen as the Games stadium and a magnificent Olympic sized pool was built. Interest in sport just took off. For all competitions standards had to be reached, and there was fierce competition for places in the various sports teams.

Shannon remembers the great excitement – and relief – when she; when most of the squad; had been chosen for the Games Teams. There was no time for slacking though. Now they had to travel to Cardiff by train for training sessions and all competitors had to achieve a specific time to be considered and to qualify for the final team. Shannon recalls how excited and proud she felt once she had been formally selected. The training now went up another notch. It was hard and there was no time for much else – but at the same time the group had a lot of fun. Friendships that would last for a long time were formed; the training was serious and demanding but the relaxing afterwards was the perfect wind-down. The travelling they all had to do was also a part of the ‘feeling togetherness.

For clothing the girls were all issued with red blazers with a proud red and white badge; white shirts, skirts/trousers and white berets/hats. Tracksuits were the very thick baggy ones of the day! Most unglamorous! For the first time, though, Shannon wore a very lightweight swimming costume.

In addition to this, the females were given a wool check dress and jacket. Nothing casual!

At the Games themselves the atmosphere was euphoric. Cardiff Arms Park – the home of Welsh rugby – was the games stadium. It was known as the Friendly Games – and it was just that. Wherever you went in Cardiff you were stopped for your autograph. On the buses into Cardiff each day you could be talking and chatting to famous athletes. Shannon found herself chatting with Chris Chataway and Derek Ibbotson one day. Athletes swapped all sorts of memorabilia – she collected pins and amassed quite a selection. Many years later she gave them to her grand-daughter.

Although it was intense, and the top competitors had pressure on them, it was still, ostensibly, amateur. Shannon was a ‘true; no funding’ amateur. The pressures on athletes and swimmers today must be horrendous – although, of course, for the top people the financial gains are huge. The accommodation was also very different. Everyone – as far as Shannon recalls – was housed in airmen’s billets at RAF St Athan – she was in Hut P9 along with other members of the Welsh team.

As the time for the opening ceremony drew near the tension grew. This was going to be the highest point so far in Shannon’s swimming career. She remembers how the opening ceremony really tugged at her heart strings. At Cardiff Arms Park all the competitors entered the stadium in uniforms. Walking behind the National Flag made one feel so patriotic. The roar in the stadium when the Welsh team marched in was quite unbelievable and emotional.

For the swimming competition a new Olympic size pool had been built and Shannon – like many of the Welsh swimming team – found it strange to have a pool 55 yards long compared to the 25yd or 33⅓yd ones she was used to. This change of length made quite a difference to the way you swam. With a short pool you had two or three turns where you could give yourself a good thrust to pick up your speed again. With one turn only there was more pressure on your actual swimming strokes. At first Shannon was overwhelmed at the thought and the length but treated it as just another challenge in her career. She would do her absolute best.

When the draw for the Women’s 110 yards freestyle was announced Shannon found herself in the same heat as one Dawn Fraser – the Australian super girl! Undaunted Shannon took up what was now a double challenge – 2 x 55 yard swimming and the best woman swimmer at this length that the world had known! Shannon did not beat Dawn Fraser – but she did qualify from this first heat. She didn’t make it through the second heat into the semi-finals – Dawn Fraser did.

In fact Dawn Fraser set a new 110 yards women’s free-style world record in these games of 1 minute 1.4 seconds – and by the end of the year held world records for the 100 metres; 110 yards; 200 metres and 220 yards. Shannon was back in the pool not long after being part of the 440 freestyle relay where the Welsh team came 6th.

Shannon recalls that for the closing ceremony everyone was so relaxed. Many of the African countries were in their national dress, singing and dancing and everyone was waving flags. It was such a fantastic experience; a really amazing experience – and so totally different to the present day. Now sport is a business. Vast sums of money are paid to the top athletes who can give everything to their chosen sport. In her time it was very amateur. In 1958 a student could have time to train but not 24/7 as happens today.

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