Swimming legend Anita Lonsbrough joins Swim England Hall of Fame20 November 2023
When it comes to being inducted into the Swim England Hall of Fame not many people have as strong of a case as Anita Lonsbrough.
The Olympic gold medallist became the first woman to win BBC Sports Personality of the Year and the first female flag bearer for Great Britain at an Olympic Games.
Here she reflects on her latest honour and her impressive career in the pool.
From her five world records, countless medals and memorable firsts, Anita Lonsbrough is a legendary figure in British swimming.
Already a member of the International Swimming Hall of Fame, Anita became one of seven new inductees into Swim England’s Hall of Fame at the governing bodies National Awards ceremony in Birmingham on Saturday.
And she was honoured to join an illustrious group of 36 athletes, coaches, officials and volunteers that have made an outstanding impact on aquatics across the nation.
She said: “It’s a great honour. I think it’s great for the whole sport that Swim England has a Hall of Fame.
“The world’s had one for many years and it’s nice that people that it’s not just the competitors but everybody can be in the Hall of Fame.
“It’s good for the sport and it encourages everybody else to take part and possibly receive the honour themselves.
“It’s lovely to join a growing list of individuals; it’s great to be a part of it.”
A rapid rise
Originally, from Yorkshire, Anita first learnt to swim in India where her father was serving as part of the armed forced.
She was inspired by her mother, who regularly took part in a one-mile race down the river ouse and was big lover of swimming and cycling.
However, it was when the family moved back to England and she joined Huddersfield Borough Swimming Club when a teenage Anita’s career really took off.
“I was a freestyle swimmer to begin with and I always used to be third in the Yorkshire Championships because I was younger that the two girls in front of me.
“But then I swam for my schools and won three events and the Bradford Championships but I was selected for the division to do breaststroke and everything just clicked.
“I always preferred freestyle but breaststroke was my forte and where I was finding success so I concentrated on that.
“We had trials for the Empire/Commonwealth Games and I qualified, won gold and everything took off for me.”
Two gold medals at the 1958 Empire/Commonwealth Games at just 17 years of age was just the beginning of her rapid rise through the sport.
Her success in breaststroke set her up for what was her greatest achievement inside the pool, the Women’s 200m Breaststroke Olympic gold at the Rome games in 1960.
She took the gold in a then world record breaking time of 2:49.5, becoming the last British woman to win an Olympic swimming title until fellow inductee Rebecca Adlington’s gold 48 years later.
Speaking on the race Anita said: “I went to the Olympics and my great rival Wiltrud Urselmann (Germany) had broken my world record so as far as I was concerned she was the favourite.
“She qualified fastest, I was second and I used to go into races not thinking about winning or losing but just knowing that I wanted to do my best.
“I had a plan and the others just had to beat me but I won and broke the world record so it was just an incredible moment.”
To be the first of anything is great
In 1962, a year in which she took three more Empire/Commonwealth golds and a medal of each colour at the European Championships, Anita became the first female recipient of the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year award.
“I’d been third two years before so when they got the first three together in the makeup room and they’d been dropping hints that somebody else had won.
“They said right ‘you three are in the top three if you want to prepare and make a little speech’ and I thought well ‘I’ve not won, so why bother’.
“Then it started with third and I thought ‘I’m supposed to be third’ and they said second and then it clicked that it was me. It was a great honour, it really was just a bit of a blur, but to be the first of anything is great.”
She won five world records and seven international gold medals throughout her career until her retirement in 1964.
At one time she held the Olympic, Empire and European titles at the same time but her retirement came after the 1964 Olympics where she became Team GB’s first ever female flag bearer.
“A woman has never carried the flag before, I never considered that I would be, but what happened was all the team managers nominate somebody and they select who it was and I was selected.
“It was just amazing to lead your country out. You go through this tunnel and it’s perfectly silent and then you go into this arena and the noise is deafening. Part of you wants to just turn around and run back it’s that loud but it really was an honour.”
Image: Will Johnston Photography