Favourite Pools: North Sydney’s Harbourside Glow A Winner For Swimmers Of All Ages

NTH SYD POOL with Bridge
LANES OF GOLD: The famous North Sydney Olympic Pool nestled under the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Photo Courtesy North Sydney Council.


Favourite Pools. What are yours? As the swimming-less summer of 2020 draws on, the team at Swimming World is taking a look at some of the great pools we love the most, why and what makes them so special. We’d like you to join in the fun and memories with your own suggestions, either by leaving a comment or sending us a picture you took of the venue you’ve chosen along with up to 300 words on why the place is one of your favourites: editorial@swimmingworld.com

North Sydney Olympic Pool

When a 10-year-old boy from Bondi arrived at North Sydney Olympic Pool for the NSW Swimming Championships in the January of 1949, it was the start of what would become an extraordinary career and the beginning of a history-making journey for both swimmer and pool.

Australia is a country home to pools of all shapes and sizes that have played such a huge part in its heritage, daily way of life and sporting culture – so many Aussies have their favourite pools and swimming holes.

And North Sydney is certainly one of the those pools – a venue that has given so many Australians – young and old – such joy and so many memorable moments – moments they will cherish forever.


LANES OF GOLD: North Sydney’s famous Olympic Pool in all her glory. Photo Courtesy: North Sydney Council.

From their first school carnivals after a train trip across the Sydney Harbour Bridge to Milsons Point, qualifying for the NSW and Australian Championships.. and visiting Luna Park next door for fairy floss, popcorn and a ride on the Big Dipper…”just for fun.”

The Bondi boy would go on to become a wonder swimmer and at the pool tagged ‘the wonder pool’ nestled under the famous Bridge and built as the country came out of depression and just two years before Sydney would host the 1938 Commonwealth Games.

Seven years after that 10-year-old had whipped the boys in the Under-12-years 55 yards freestyle, the great Murray Rose would return to those famous lanes to break his first world record in the 880 yards freestyle, again at the NSW Championships.

It would be one of 86 world records set by a “who’s who” of Australian swimmers at North Sydney Olympic Pool between 1953 and 1978 – a world record for world records.

Murray and Sam SW

ON THE PACE: Rain, hail or shine….Murray Rose and coach Sam Herford, a perfect pair. Photo Courtesy: Murray Rose Collection.

But for Rose and his coach, the legendary Sam Herford, things didn’t always go according to plan at a pool open to all kinds of weather and the deafening sounds of trains that would so often delay the start of races.

Rose had recalled that on one occasion Herford’s pre-race instructions were: “If I was behind my pace he would put up an umbrella and if I was ahead he would keep it down signaling ‘no worries’ but while I was swimming, it started to drizzle, which I didn’t realise. This caused everyone in the stands to put up their umbrellas!

“I couldn’t even see Sam, and assumed that he had his umbrella up, too. I found out later that this was not true, so he would probably have been getting drenched. It made me think I was behind all the way, so I ended up going much faster and trying much harder than I would have otherwise. The swim almost killed me…but it was a good time.”

Nth Sydney Pool Circa 1940s

NORTH SYDNEY POOL IN THE 1940s: Photo Courtesy: National Library.

As a pupil at Cranbrook School, Rose would go on to win the New South Wales under-14 110 and 440 yards (100 and 400 metres) freestyle titles en-route to one of the most stellar gold medal careers of any Olympian and front cover film-stardom in the US.

In January 1955, Murray Rose arrived big time, beating the Empire Games champion Gary Chapman’s Australian 440 yards freestyle record by two seconds at North Sydney Olympic Pool.

Rose listed the harbour side pool, as a favourite, a pool that saw Frank O’Neill set its first world record in the pool in the 400m individual medley in 1953.

The final world record would be in 1978 when Moscow Olympic golden girl Michelle Ford set a new world mark of 8:31.30 in the 800m freestyle also at the NSW Championships.

In between the likes of Dawn Fraser, Lorraine Crapp, John Devitt, Kevin Berry, Bob Windle, John and Ilsa Konrads, Shane Gould, Brad Cooper, Graham Windeatt, Jenny Turrall and Stephen Holland would add their names that adorn the historic Wall of Fame – still a major tourist attraction.

Don Talbot and the Konrads Kids

KID POWER: The “Konrads kids” Ilsa and John with coach Don Talbot – who se over 20 world records at North Sydney. Photo Courtesy: Swimming Australia.

The pool belonged to the likes of Dawn and the Konrads kids” John and Ilsa, the fresh-faced teens who under coach Don Talbot “stole the summer of ‘58” toppling a succession of records at the NSW Championships.

Already displaying a collection of school competition trophies at their Greenacre home, John and Ilsa smashed seven records over five days in January 1958.

John, then 15, broke the world record for 880 yards freestyle, clocking 9:17.7, on January 11. Days earlier, on January 7, Ilsa at just 13 became the second female swimmer in the world to break five minutes for 440 yards in a long-course pool with a time of 4:59.2.

On January 9 the crowd cheered the “13-year-old wonder girl” as she broke the world 880 yards record by 16.9 seconds, in a time of 10:17.7, which also broke the world 800 yards record by 13.2 seconds.

The Konrads kids would go on to set over 20 world records between them, becoming regulars in newspaper and magazines as swimming in Sydney became as popular as cricket and football.

Jon Henricks caricature 2

CLOSE SHAVE: Olympic champion Jon Henricks introduced shaving down at North Sydney Olympic Pool. Artwork Courtesy: Tony Rafty Collection.

The 1956 Olympic 100m freestyle champion Jon Henricks recalls the 1953 NSW Championships – becoming the first swimmer to shave his body.

“At the NSW titles I shaved my chest and when I dived into the water, I felt like a bullet..I broke the Australian record by a second, with a swim of 58.5secs. A month later at the Australian titles at North Sydney Olympic pool shaved my chest, my arms and my legs,” said Henricks.

“I took another second off and equalled the Olympic record with a 57.1…”

Fraser, Crapp and Gould in their respective eras…Fraser and Crapp through the 50s and 60s coupled with Rose, Konrads, Devitt and Jon Henricks, dominated sporting headlines providing a promoters dream for NSW Swimming.

At the height of the lead-up to the ‘56, ‘60 and ‘64 Olympics it was sell-out crowds, particularly on a Friday night with public transport, the trains and ferries bulging like the grandstands.

Swimming World October 2019 Dawn FraserFraser (pictured) and Crapp were the stars of the show – both Sydney girls along with the likes of Sandra Morgan and Faith Leech emerging as household names.

And the dawning of an new era of the 70s came a new star, who swam at school carnivals at the grand old lady under the bridge who challenged world records set by Fraser and Crapp.

Shane Gould, a schoolgirl headline grabber, under the watchful eyes of legendary coaches Forbes and Ursula Carlile, was another teenage wonder girl who at one stage held every world record in the books from 100 to 1500m – but it was a balmy summer’s evening on January 8, 1972 at the NSW Championships at North Sydney when Gould would finally eclipse the great Dawn Fraser’s 1964 world mark of 58.9 with hundreds of people were turned away, Gould lowered the mark to 58.5.


WORLD RECORD SWIM: Shane Gould who set a new world record in the 100m freestyle in 1972. Photo Courtesy: Kevin Berry/Swimming World Archive

It’s modern water filtration system and salt water pumped in from the harbour provided what many believed to be a healthier swimming environment and given the salt water flotation benefits, earned its nicknamed of ‘the wonder pool’.

It would so often be the used as a film set and for regular photo shoots, launches and commercial activities given its spectacular location and outlook.

Today the pool has been the subject of a major renovation debate between local and Federal governments with the “refurb” set to begin in September and will see North Sydney closed for up to two years.

But rest assured the grand old lady of swimming will be in the headlines again for another spectacular re-opening, featuring those record breaking lanes of gold that have captured the imagination of the famous harbour city for almost nine decades.

North Sydney modern artwork

WHAT THE FUTURE HOLDS: Artwork of what the new North Sydney Olympic Pool will look like. Photo Courtesy: North Sydney Council

In our Favourite Pools series so far:

Do you have a favourite pool and venue and memories to share. Let us know in comments or by sending us 300 words or so and at least one picture from your archive (noting the source): editorial@swimmingworld.com

  • All commentaries are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Swimming World Magazine, the International Swimming Hall of Fame, nor its staff.
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Tommy Rundgren
3 years ago

Lahti, Finland is quite unique?

Craig Lord
3 years ago
Reply to  Tommy Rundgren

Sounds wonderful, Tommy, send me a photo and a few words about what makes it special! lord.com … can you swoop down the ski jump and dive straight in the lake there? 🙂

David W Brown
3 years ago

Coleman pool in west seattle :-))))))))))))

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