Swimming with Murray: A Tribute to Murray Rose

Guest feature by Tony Johnston

SYDNEY, Australia, May 16. IT was with great sadness that I learnt of the death of Murray Rose – not because I knew him well but simply because my life had crossed paths with his, in the sharing of a common interest.

As Australian Olympic Committee President John Coates stated at his funeral, it was, apart from his sporting achievements, Murray's “decency, dignity and generosity of spirit” that made him so special.. On the front cover of the Order of Service that day were two photographs of Murray, one of them when he was a toddler standing at Redleaf Pool in Sydney's Double Bay where he had learnt to swim, and the other taken only a few years ago of him at North Bondi Beach. Beneath the two photos was a caption “Not Much Has Changed”. The saying had real relevance to my own experience with Murray.

By the year I was born (1971) Murray had already won four Olympic gold medals and had broken 15 world records. By then he was living in the U.S., pursuing a career apart from swimming. For me, Murray carrying the Olympic Torch at the opening ceremony of the Sydney Olympics in 2000 is the first real memory I have of him.

In 2007, I accepted an invitation from a good mate, Michael “Murph” Renford, to be an assistant swimmer for him on his first attempt at tackling the English Channel. I hadn't trained in the pool for about 20 years, but my 12 year old son had been training under Angelo Basalo and Gai Campbell at Cranbrook Eastern Edge based at Cranbrook School in Sydney. So, I thought I might as well swim there too.

At 5 a.m. on the morning of my first session in March 2007, I was told by Angelo that I should join lane 7. Angelo and Gai duly introduced me to a few people who were lane 7 swimmers. I was 38 years old then and they were, with respect, “older blokes”. “Just take it easy and see how you go” Angelo advised. I thought…I don't think I'll have too many problems in this lane.

I was not introduced to the lead swimmer of the lane. He'd done a few solo laps prior to the warm-up and he was already in the pool by the time I had arrived. He looked to be the oldest of all the swimmers in the lane. I'm thinking, “I'll be right”.

The session to be done was written on a whiteboard. I don't recall exactly what the warm-up set was but we were away on the red top (i.e. the red pointer of the timing clock). As is etiquette when it's your first time swimming with a squad, I elected to go last. The old bloke out in front took off and I watched him take about ten or so strokes while the other swimmers set off one at a time in front of me. He swam beautifully. His pace seemed pretty quick for a warm up though. The pool is a 25 metre one and by about the eighth lap he was starting to touch my toes. The “older bloke” leading the lane was about to lap me! I pulled over and let him go by. There was no acknowledgement at all and not even when I eventually finished did he say anything. My first session lasted 800 metres and I was lapped by the “older bloke” probably three or four times.

I recall speaking to Murph after my first couple of days of training, and explaining to him about this “older bloke” who leads the lane, telling him he had the most refined stroke I have ever seen (not that I am any expert). “He just makes swimming look so effortless and he flies!” I said. Murph replies: “That's likely to be Murray Rose you know! I think he swims over there at Cranbrook.” I must have looked perplexed because Murph, in some disbelief says, “seriously mate, do you know who Murray Rose is?” I explained that I had heard the name…… but didn't really know much about him. “Murray Rose is swimming royalty and to be honest, my swimming idol!” said Murph. For the next 15 minutes Murph gives me a history lesson on Murray.

Well, after a few months, I finally got some fitness and I was told by Gai to move to lane 6 – the swimmers in lane 6 being a bit younger and slightly quicker than those in lane 7 (except for Murray of course).

From that morning, and on a regular basis, I found myself swimming side by side with the bloke who had won four Olympic gold medals, broken 15 world records, been voted Swimmer of the Century and was simply “swimming royalty”. And by that time, Murray knew me and would say good morning.

After a couple of sessions in lane 6, I started getting the feeling that Murray was playing games with me in the pool. It would not be uncommon for me to go into a turn a metre in front of him and for him to come out a metre in front of me. I would then catch up to him and swim ahead and then he would catch me before the next turn. I'd be behind him and all of a sudden I'd be in front of him and vice versa. This started to become too regular for it to be simply chance. I recall telling my wife and Murph of my suspicion: that the great Murray Rose was “playing mind games with me”. They laughed it off. But I was serious. I found myself starting to concentrate on Murray rather than my stroke, timing, breathing etc. Murray was seriously starting to get inside my head.

Early one morning around, I was driving one of my children to swimming training listening to ABC Local Radio 702. The show, hosted by Adam Spencer, contained a segment called Voice from the Vault. Adam would play a snippet of an interview, usually with a famous person – and listeners would ring in and, try to guess who it was. When someone had the answer, Adam would play the interview (or at least a minute or so of it). This particular morning the voice from the vault belonged to Murray Rose, from an interview taken while Murray was still pool swimming competitively. During the interview he was asked by the interviewer something like “how do you keep yourself occupied while you are going up and down that lane?” His answer astonished me. He told the interviewer that he would often play games with other swimmers in the pool. I couldn't believe what I was hearing! I wasn't just being paranoid after all…Murray was just doing what he had always done in the pool…he was playing games. Sadly for me, I was the person he was playing with!

The following morning I approached Murray at the pool. We were well enough acquainted by that stage to the point that we had shared the occasional joke and engaged in a bit of good humoured banter. I walked up to him and said “Murray, I've got a bone to pick with you.” “What about?” he said. And I replied: “you've been playing games with me in the water – haven't you?” He gave a little chuckle and said “I might have been Tony… just might have been.” delivered with the accompaniment of his trademark smile. Just as the caption I was to read later at his funeral `Not Much Had Changed!”.

At the time of Murray's death, he was still the lead swimmer in lane 7 and I was the lead swimmer in lane 6. We had eyeballed each other many, many times over the previous five years. During that time I witnessed Murray do some very special things in swimming terms – including seeing him swim 100 metres freestyle in 1min 10secs — at the at the age of 71. That day he was barely puffing when he finished!

The Murray Rose I came to know was an extremely competitive person. On reflection that came as no surprise, given his accomplishments, in and out of the pool. In swimming terms (the only environment in which I ever knew him) he was impeccably honest with himself. If the whiteboard said 200 metres, Murray swam 200 metres. He always touched the wall at the end of every lap and never cut a lap short.

It was both an honour and a privilege for me to have the opportunity of observing Murray's impeccable stroke from a metre away. He was definitely older and a bit slower of course than back in the `Golden Days' – but he was still extraordinary in the pool. I would often hold my breath for five or six strokes just to get the chance of watching his under-water technique with amazement. I did my best to work out how he was able to make swimming look so effortless. But no matter how hard I tried, I couldn't emulate it. The one thing I was able to work out over those five years as to how and why he won those four gold medals and broke 15 world records was just this: He was, quite simply, the greatest.

My best wishes and thoughts go out to Jodi and Trevor. May your husband, father and beloved man of the sea rest in peace.

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