1970 Edinburgh Commonwealth Games Flashback: Celebrating A Karen Moras World Record 50 Years On

Karen Stephenson (Moras) PLC 2017
MILESTONE MEMORIES: Karen Moras poolside at PLC Croydon where she is the Director of Swimming. Photo Courtesy Parramatta Advertiser

It is 50 years ago today that a 16-year-old Sydney schoolgirl Karen Moras stunned a packed crowd at the Royal Commonwealth Pool in Edinburgh to smash her own world record in the 800m freestyle.

Her stunning solo swim in a time of 9:02.45 was the major highlight of Australia’s dominance in the pool at the 1970 Commonwealth Games.

And it was the 800m freestyle that saw a clean sweep to the Australian girls with 13-year-old Far North Queensland schoolgirl Helen Gray winning the silver and Kingaroy’s 24-year-old dual Olympian Robyn Risson, swimming at her third Games, claiming the bronze.


Photo Courtesy: Australia’s Complete History of the Commonwealth Games.

Moras stole the show in a swim for the ages – taking almost seven seconds off her own world record which had been set at the Australian Championships and Games Selection Trials at Sydney’s Drummoyne Pool.

That was on March 1, a meet disrupted by anti-apartheid demonstrators who threw black powder dye in the pool on the opening night in a protest against the proposed South African tour by an Australian team that would include Moras.

But Moras went on to break American Debbie Meyer’s world mark that night, clocking a time of 9:09.1 to end Meyer’s seven-year domination – and set up what would be the most memorable year of her career.

Games debutant Gray was the baby of the team, a tough-as-teak Grade Eight schoolgirl from Pimlico High School in Townsville – and coached by a mad-cap former Australian Rugby Union Wallaby named Laurie Lawrence – his first international swimmer from a coach who would achieve legendary status in Australian Olympic history with the likes of Olympic champions Jon Sieben and Duncan Armstrong.

Four-months after the Australian Championships, the successful and uneventful tour to South Africa and a tough training camp swimming under hard task master Head Coach Don Talbot in Scarborough on Redcliffe peninsula north of Brisbane, Moras was primed for the Games of her life in Edinburgh.

Coached by Forbes Carlile since the age of eight, living just a mile-and-a-half from Ryde Pool, Moras learnt what it was like to taste the toughness of Talbot and a post world record tongue lashing she didn’t see coming.

“It was an amazing team, everybody got on, there were no egos but I learnt some lessons during that training camp,” recalled Moras.

“After one morning training session, Don scheduled us to come back to the pool for a lunch time session asking us distance swimmers to bring our beach towels to the pool.

“For once I thought we were going to sunbake while the sprinters trained but ‘no’ the sprinters sat in the grandstand (sunning themselves) and of course I brought the biggest beach towel I could find because I thought we were sunbaking.

“Instead we had to tie the towel around the bands on our legs and Don said right let’s go – 3x800s (pull) towing a wet beach towel.

“The next time Don called ‘a beach towel session’ I found the smallest, thinnest towel I could….”

But those finishing touches certainly did the trick with the Australian girls Moras, Gray and Risson in the 800m and Moras, Denise Langford and Risson in the 400m freestyle  landing two clean sweeps in a distance domination.

Moras also added the 200m freestyle – and to this day remains the only swimmer to have achieved the 200, 400, 800m freestyle treble at a Commonwealth Games – her victory in the 200m and the 800m the first time those events had been swum at a Commonwealth Games.

“I was really at the top of my career at those Commonwealth Games and I often think that had they been the Olympics Games (who know what would have happened) but I guess it’s a certain amount of luck as to when you peak,” said Moras.

Com Games kiss for Karen Moras 1970

IF THE CAP FITS: Karen Moras gets a welcome home kiss after returning home from Edinburgh with three gold medals and a world record. Photo Courtesy: Karen Moras Collection.

“The one thing I remember out of Edinburgh was the stress that I felt; everyone thought that I would win three gold medals so there was a lot of stress and I don’t want this to sound cocky but I knew I could win the 400 and the 800 freestyle.

“But I was petrified for the 200 freestyle because I’m not a sprinter so that was the one I really wanted to win and I was really worried about the girl from the Isle Of Man, Alexandra Jackson – she was the one to beat and she finished with the bronze (swimming the same time as Gray, who was fourth).

“My main competitors in the 400 and the 800 were all on our team…Helen. Denise and Robyn …..but the 200m was unknown.

“I started with the 800m and I held the world record of course and Don wanted me to get under 9 minutes.

“I had never experienced anything like Don Talbot, I knew how to work Forbes but Don was a completely different kettle of fish

“I knew I just had to swim my own race, going into the meet I was quite a long way ahead of the other girls on times, so I knew I couldn’t hang around.

“I had always been taught from Forbes to negative split so Don was trying to get me to go out harder which I tried.

“And I always swam an 800 as 2 x 400s so after lap eight I was on the way home and that’s how I always swam it.

“I felt great and I just wanted to lap those other girls and every time I passed them I just wanted that gap to be more and more.

“They were my posts that I was following and I lapped those girls and won by over 40 metres (25 seconds) and took seven seconds off the world record, at 9:02.

“I was really happy and I thought I’d done a great job and seeing Helen and Robyn take silver and bronze it was a clean sweep for Australia.


Australian Swim Team, 1970 Commonwealth Games: Back row from left: Jimmy Findlay, Max Tavasci, Rick Wilkinson, Buddy (Willem) Portier, Neil Rogers, Bill Devenish. 2nd back row: Graham Windeatt, Paul Jarvie, Greg Brough, Greg Rogers, Michael Wenden, Graham White. 3rd row: Arthur Cusack (Asst Coach), Helen Gray, Gail Neall, Diana Rickard, Robyn Risson, Jenny Watts, Denise Langford, Karen Moras, Don Talbot (Head Coach)
Front row: Arch Steinbeck (Mgr), Jane Comerford, Lynne Watson, Allyson Mabb, Beverley Whitfield, Debbie Cain, Maree Robinson, Sandra Smith, Esna Hopewell (Asst Mgr). Photo Courtesy: Lynne Watson Collection.

“Don wasn’t happy and when I got out of the pool, Don lost it, so there I was with the gold medal and the world record after and I lapped almost everybody and he just went off his tree and said I could have been the first female under nine minutes in the world…I was happy but Don wasn’t.

“But I was bloody relieved when it was over I can tell you that; there was no jealously, everyone supported each other; it was such a good team; Arthur Cusack (Simon Cusask’s uncle) as the assistant coach, was a lot of fun and with Arthur and Don it was a case of good cop/bad cop; that’s the way it ran.”


Karen Moras world record 800m freestyle Edinburgh, 1970

Moras went on to set a new Games record in the 400m freestyle (4:27.38) – and in a special time trial in a world record attempt just missed Debbie Meyer’s world record (4:24.5) – which she eventually lowered to 4:22.6 the following year in the Coca Cola Meet at Crystal Palace.

But Moras knew Talbot’s dramatic reaction, was just Don – a passionate coach wanting to get the absolute best out of his athlete, knowing what he believed she could have achieved.

(And Moras had so much respect for Talbot she eventually left Forbes Carlile and trained out her career with Talbot as she prepared for her second Olympics in Munich in 1972.)

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SILVER LINING: Silver medallist Helen Gray pictured this week in Brisbane with the Speedo Australian togs she wore as a 13-year-old in the Karen Moras world record swim. Photo Courtesy: Robert Gray

Gray, who did not turn 14 until the October had to do it without her coach Lawrence, who was not part of the team, admitting it was tough but she had been travelling around Queensland to meets since she was nine.

“I just loved swimming and if I had the chance I’d do it all over again; the friendships and mateships for this little girl from Townsville, in the backwaters of Queensland was quite an adventure.

“We were not even thinking of the Commonwealth Games…Laurie had set me for the Olympics…that’s what we were training for but what an experience it was for me.

“I remember rooming with Denise Langford and we had a women’s Village and a men’s Village and I remember going to lunch with the weightlifters and they would just have tray after tray of food…that was an eye opener.

“I look back on it now and think did I really do that ? Then I look at my swimmers (costume) and I think ‘oh my goodness’ that’s such a long time ago but lessons I’ve learnt and I talk to school kids about…if you don’t train hard then you are not going to get there.”

Risson had made her debut at the 1962 Games in Perth where she won a silver medal in the 110 yards freestyle and gold in the 4×110 yards freestyle relay in a team that included Dawn Fraser and broke the world record.

She returned for the 1966 Games in Kingston where she won silver in the 440 yards freestyle after her silver medal in the 4x100m relay at the Tokyo Olympics in 1964.

Karen Moras is now the Director of Swimming at PLC Croydon –a program from learn-to-swim to National Level with enthusiastic head coach Brett Winkworth in charge.

And Moras or Karen Stephenson as she is known in married life, at 66, still supremely fit, attending a Bootcamp in Parramatta four mornings a week at 5am before work.

And what’s the Moras motto ? “Just don’t stop…it’s too hard to get your fitness back and (the best thing) you can eat what you like.”

Karen boot camp low res 2

STILL ON THE PACE: Karen Moras during a Bootcamp work out this week at Parramatta. Photo Courtesy: Karen Moras.

1 comment

  1. avatar
    Anicia Criscione

    This is such an inspirational story! Thanks for sharing this post of swimming history AND sharing that Karen is still staying fit today.

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