Great Races: Women’s 100-Meter Backstroke at the 1964 Olympics

Cathy Ferguson
Cathy Ferguson. Photo Courtesy: ISHOF

Great Races: Women’s 100-Meter Backstroke at the 1964 Olympics

By Dave Bartlett and Brenda Borgh Bartlett

“In one drop of water is found all the secrets of all the oceans.” – Kahlil Gibran

Dedication: We would like to dedicate our article to all female swim coaches over the decades, including one of Brenda’s first coaches, Stephanie Walsh Beilman.

There are many great races. The racers in them are participating in a complex Russian doll structure; a race inside a race inside another. The Tour de France is a composition of races. There is the race to win the “General Classification” – the overall winner; the race to win the stage; the race for the green jersey of the best sprinter; the race for the polka dot jersey for “king of the mountain.” There are races within each race and it goes on for weeks.

In swimming, there is “the race” – usually the final at a prestigious competition. Then there is a set of heats to qualify for the final and possibly preliminaries and semifinals before the final. There can also be races that are similar in stroke but different in distance, so some of the racers get to measure each other. Then there are the virtual races. The most prominent of those is the race for the “world record.”

“A world record!” “She has shattered the world record!” “She has set a new world record.” There is a great deal of hyperventilation surrounding world record swims. We don’t view a world record swim through the lens of a virtual race because it is most often seen as a badge of accomplishment, not a race in itself. Today, in the big televised meets, you see the “world record line” – a computer-generated line added to the picture so the viewer can see where the swimmers are in relation to the current world record.

But what exactly does “breaking the world record” mean? As is the case with most phrases, it means different things to different people. To great racers, it is a virtual race – a way to gauge and understand where your best swims compare to other great racers around the world and over time.

The women’s 100-meter backstroke at the 1964 Olympics was loaded with great racers. The world record had been repeatedly lowered in the months before the 1964 Olympics were held in Tokyo. There were five world-record setters in the race. Four would be inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame.

It should be noted that in the early 1960s, if you broke the world record in any meet other than the Olympic Games, the world record was “pending.” Then at the end of the year, the FINA authorities would review all the times that went below the existing world record mark and decide who had the fastest official time. That would become the “world record.” Therefore, if you broke the world record at nationals, it was considered the “pending world record” not THE “world record.”

History of the Women’s Long Course 100-Meter Backstroke

The women’s 100-meter backstroke made its debut in the 1924 Paris Olympics. The gold medal was awarded to Sybil Bauer from the United States for a time of 1:23.2. It has been an internationally competitive event with gold medalists from the Netherlands, Denmark, Great Britain, South Africa and the United States in the subsequent Olympics.

In the early 1960s a new periodical – “Swimming World” – helped get times and results out to the swimming community. In those years, travel was limited and many international swimmers did not compete against each other except through the “pending” world records and the pages of Swimming World Magazine, and hopefully at the Olympic Games. Unlike swimmers today, who know a record has been broken almost instantly, Satoko Tanaka from Japan only heard about record breaking swims in the newspapers. Even then, it was often six months to a year before she got the news.

Satoko Tanaka

Photo Courtesy: ISHOF Archives

You can see startling drops in the line chart below. We will be focusing on the early section between 1959 and 1964. However, it is instructive to see the drops from 1973 to 1976 (East German steroid abuse records) and the drops around 2008-09 (tech suit era records). Also note the lack of significant time drops when turn rules were changed and the introduction of the “Berkoff Blastoff” in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Chart

Photo Courtesy:

The data points that represent the world record progression above from 1956 to 1964 are detailed below:
1956-12-05 Judith Grinham Great Britain 1:12.9 Melbourne, Australia
1958-03-12 Phillipa Gould New Zealand 1:12.5 Auckland, New Zealand
1958-04-19 Margaret Edwards Great Britain 1:12.4 Cardiff, United Kingdom
1958-07-20 Ria van Velsen Netherlands 1:12.3 Nijmegen, Netherlands
1958-07-23 Judith Grinham Great Britain 1:11.9 Cardiff, United Kingdom
1959-07-26 Ria van Velsen Netherlands 1:11.7 Waalwijk, Netherlands
1959-09-06 Carin Cone United States 1:11.4 Chicago, United States
1960-06-12 Ria van Velsen Netherlands 1:11.0 Leipzig, East Germany
1960-07-10 Ria van Velsen Netherlands 1:10.9 Maastricht, Netherlands
1960-07-17 Lynn Burke United States 1:10.1 Indianapolis, United States
1960-08-04 Lynn Burke United States 1:10.0 Detroit, United States
1960-08-05 Lynn Burke United States 1:09.2 Detroit, United States
1960-09-02 Lynn Burke United States 1:09.0 Rome, Italy
1963-07-28 Donna DeVarona United States 1:08.9 Los Angeles, United States
1964-06-14 Christine Caron France 1:08.6 Paris, France
1964-09-28 Virginia Duenkel United States 1:08.3 Los Angeles, United States
1964-10-14 Cathy Ferguson United States 1:07.7 Tokyo, Japan

**It should be noted that lost to time and war is a recorded swim of 1:10.9 for the women’s 100-meter backstroke on September 22, 1939 by Dutch Hall of Fame swimmer Cor Kint.

The question to ask is what inspired such outrageous improvement? Nina Harmar Thompson, a member of the 1960 and 1964 Olympic teams, experienced all this improvement:

“I definitely believe that training was the biggest reason for improved times,” she said. “I lived in Philadelphia where there was basically no age group swimming but I was incredibly lucky that my coach, Mary Freeman Kelly, had swum in the 1952 Olympics, then married John B. Kelly, Jr. and founded the Vesper Swim Club. Mary was an amazing coach and studied how other sports were training.”

Cathy Ferguson was just 12 years old when she started training with Peter Daland at the Los Angeles Athletic Club in 1960. She says:

“Peter trained us on dryland, running, pulley weights and stretching,” Ferguson said. “I would do weight training for 45 minutes each day before practice in the winter months. As a result, I had no injuries, as my upper body was conditioned. My dad built me pulley weights in our garage and I continued to do weights throughout the year. I trained with the men’s team and a couple of the really accomplished girls.”

Satoko Tanaka, the 200-meter backstroke world-record holder, believes it was training:

“We used ‘image’ training (visualization) and ‘interval’ training in the late ’50s and the results were remarkable,” she said. “Later, we made our own dryland ‘tools’ out of ropes and pulleys and bicycle inner tube rubber. Initially, it didn’t seem to do anything and I have no proof it worked. But I think it helped my 100-meter race.”

Great women racers were no longer treated differently. If they could keep up they swam with the men. As Ferguson explains: “Peter was motivating in an unusual way. He mathematically analyzed (I used an actual formula) every swim with me. I could see the translation from workout times to performance times. I also was a member of his ‘Horse Team.’ These were swimmers who did the distance training. We worked out an extra hour before others arrived. I swam in the same lane as Murray Rose, the great Aussie! I learned so much about pacing from him. In the backstroke I learned from Bob Bennett (1964 Olympic backstroker) and Chuck Bittick (1960 Olympian). Therefore, I had great mentors in the pool.”

Leading up to the Summer of 1964

Dominating the backstroke in the 1960 Olympics was Lynn Burke. She lowered the world record nearly two seconds from 1:10.9 to 1:09.0. She held that record until 1963.

Going into the summer of 1964, the world record in the women’s 100 backstroke was held by Donna DeVarona. She broke Burke’s 3-year-old record from the Rome Olympics in 1960. Donna set the record on July 28, 1963 in Los Angeles with a time of 1:08.9. (Donna DeVarona was better known for her dominance of the IM events where she held world records in the 200 and 400 but her backstroke was world class).

In the early 1960s, the number of events at the Olympics was limited. For example, in the individual freestyle events, the men had three (100, 400, 1500 meters) and women had two (100 and 400 meters). In the backstroke, the men had a 200-meter race and women had a 100-meter race. However, world records were kept for many of the events that were not Olympic events like the men’s 100-meter backstroke and the women’s 200-meter backstroke. This would change in the 1968 Mexico Olympics as a full slate of events was implemented for both men and women.

In the early 1960s, the women’s 200-meter backstroke had been dominated by Satoko Tanaka. Amazingly, Satoko lowered the world record by over five seconds in eight swims between 1960 and 1963. Although she was the world leader in the 200, she never set the world record in the 100 meters. However, swimming in the Olympics in her native Japan was sure to give her motivation. Christine “Kiki” Caron got the world record parade going by setting a new world record of 1:08.6 at the French Olympic Trials on June 6, 1964.

Christine Caron and Cathy Ferguson

Christine Caron and Cathy Ferguson. Photo Courtesy: Swimming World Archives

The Venue

The swimming venue for the Tokyo Olympics was the National Gymnasium. It had a spectator capacity of 11,112 for swimming and diving. It was brand new. It is still in use today and will hopefully host the Olympic handball competitions next year at the 2020ne Olympics in Tokyo. Caron remembers the 1964 Olympic swimming venue as “like a cathedral” – an impressive statement from one who grew up in Paris.

In 1964, the Tokyo pool was state of the art technology. The gutter system was designed to whisk away waves and not send them ricocheting back at the swimmers. The gutters and new lane line technology to replace the common “ropes and corks” seen in most of the pools in those years was a vast improvement.

The Tokyo Olympic swimming venue introduced another technology that we now take for granted – electronic timing. This meet was the first time that electronic timing was used in the Olympic swimming venue – however it was not official. There were sight judges, timers and button pushers on each lane. The electronic timing was only at the start/finish end and there were no split times at the 50-meter turn.

The Preliminaries

Cathy Ferguson

Cathy Ferguson. Photo Courtesy: Swimming World Archive

There were four heats of the women’s 100 meter backstroke late in the morning of Wednesday, October 14, 1964. In an odd twist, most qualifiers for the final came from the first heat – Harmar (1:09.8), Tanaka (1:10.0) and Linda Ludgrove (1:10.3) from Great Britain. Heat 2 had two qualifiers: current “pending” world record holder Ginny Duenkel set a new Olympic record at 1:08.9 and Eileen Weir (1:09.7) of Canada. Heat 3 had only one qualifier – Ferguson, who topped Duenkel’s Olympic record with a 1:08.8; she won her heat by three seconds. The fourth and last heat had Caron of France set the fastest time in the preliminaries with yet another new Olympic record with a time of 1:08.5. Jill Norfolk (1:10.6) from Great Britain became the final swimmer to grab a spot in the Olympic final.

Failing to make the final was Ria van Velson of the Netherlands. Van Velson had broken the world record four times in the late 1950s and early 1960s. She last set the record at 1:10.9 going into the 1960 Rome Olympics where she made the final and finished in seventh place.

Four preliminary heats were completed and the last three heats each produced a new Olympic record eclipsing the previous heat. All the racers preparing for the final knew it would take a world record to win the 1964 Olympic gold medal in the women’s 100-meter backstroke.

The 1964 Olympic finals were set:
Lane 1: Linda Ludgrove (GB)
Lane 2: Nina Harmar (USA)
Lane 3: Ginny Duenkel (USA)
Lane 4: Kiki Caron (FRA)
Lane 5: Cathy Ferguson (USA)
Lane 6: Eileen Weir (CAN)
Lane 7: Satoko Tanaka (JPN)
Lane 8: Jill Norfolk (GB)

The Race

The finals were in the evening. Lanes 3, 5, 4 had each set an Olympic record in successive heats. Lane 2 (Nina Harmar) and Lane 7 (Satoko Tanaka) had each competed in the 1960 Olympics in the 100 backstroke. There were four swimmers from North America, three from Europe and one from Asia. Four swimmers wore the heavy rubber caps of the day and the other four had short hair with no cap.

The Start

The blocks were heavy concrete slabs with a slight indentation for the backstroke start bar which was aligned with the end of the pool. The touchpads did not pose any problems for the start and actually created a better gripping surface than would have been the case with the concrete wall.

The gun sounded, and the start was clean across the pool. A great race was off.

First Lap

Speed! That is always the goal of a 100-meter race. In this race it was critical. Kiki Caron was FAST and her first 50 was always fast. Seeded first, everyone had some of their focus tuned to her. The goal of the other two Olympic record breakers was not to let her get away, to keep her close. Cathy Ferguson and Satoko Tanaka were considered better at the 200-meter race. They had to increase their turnover and try to stay with Caron.

The first 50 was a drag race to the turn. “Stay in the race” and “Don’t let her get away,” those were the goals. For Kiki Caron the goal was to get away, to explode away from the field. In backstroke if you get far enough in front you can see your competitors but they cannot see you. Approaching the wall, the race was still close. Now, they had to focus on the turn. A backstroke turn in 1964 was always a make or break moment in a race.

The Turn

It is difficult to overstate how important the turn was in a backstroke race before they changed the turn rules. The rules in races during 1964 stated that a racer had to touch the wall with their hand before changing directions while remaining on their back. It was done with a spin as the racer touched with a hand, then would rotate to place their feet on the wall.

The best racers all knew that in order to be consistently fast they had to be capable of touching and spinning with either hand. Cathy Ferguson has a great story about learning to turn with both hands:

“Peter and my dad kept telling me I needed to practice left handed turns in case I hit the wall with my left hand. In my first National Championships in Philadelphia (Nina’s home pool). I hit the wall left handed and really had difficulty getting off the wall. I failed to qualify for the finals by a tenth of a second. This was one of the greatest lessons in my life. BE PREPARED! So for the next three years I practiced left handed flip turns for 45 minutes every night before practice. The goal was to take the turn without looking. In the Olympic Games I judged I would hit the wall with the left hand and I didn’t have to worry about it.”

From the race video, you can see Kiki Caron get to the wall first but only by an instant. Both Cathy Ferguson and Ginny Duenkel were right with her. Kiki took a couple looks at the wall while Cathy drove to the wall without looking and kept her stroke turnover constant. They turned and came out even with Ginny Duenkel a fraction behind. Satoko Tanaka always turned on her right hand – she felt she had a good turn but knew a strong second lap was her only chance to get a top three finish.

Second Lap

What do great racers do on the last lap? They keep or increase their tempo. When every fiber and nerve in their bodies burns they keep going and often increase their tempo. That comes from training, lots of training.

Cathy Ferguson, 1964 Olympic Champion Swimming World photo (1)

Cathy Ferguson. Photo Courtesy: Swimming World Archive

The women’s 100-meter backstroke last lap at the 1964 Olympics was a 50-meter drag race between Ginny Duenkel in Lane 3, Kiki Caron in Lane 4 and Cathy Ferguson in Lane 5. The three Olympic record breakers were out to break more records. Backstroke racers look at where they have been but are focused on where they are going. Good backstroke racers keep their head steady and their eyes up. They don’t look around but they sense where their competitors are and their own place in the race. Each of these three knew they had a chance. As Cathy Ferguson explains:

“Caron was ahead of me slightly before the 50-meter turn and I came off even. Kiki swam a fast first 50 always. I knew if I could be even with her at the 75-meter mark, I could pull it out. I said a quick prayer, ‘Please God, help this to be the fastest race of my life.’”

At the 75, the racers were even and Satoko Tanaka was about half a body length behind. Satoko’s position left her in a difficult position to see the fight going on in Lanes 3, 4 and 5 – where they were dead even! The racers knew the stakes; they knew they were in position – each needing to push through the final 25 meters to the wall.

From the 75-meter mark to the flags Cathy Ferguson’s tempo took over and in the 10 strokes from the 75-meter mark she gathered half a head lead. Kiki Caron did her best to stay with her. Ginny Duenkel’s tempo didn’t keep pace with the other two. Out in Lane 7, Satoko Tanaka was having the best second lap of all the racers. The 200-meter record holder was powering into the finish.

Finish

Great racers finish. Under the flags and into the wall these Olympians powered to the wall. Watching the video, it seems as if the place order changed with each stroke. It was a tight finish and easier to judge the finish from the sides or a video than if you were in the pool. The racers hit the wall and it was too close for any of them to sense how they placed. Cathy remembers the touch pads needed to be taken into account on the finish:

“The pads did need to be adapted as they were too short and a person driving toward the finish might miss the touch pad because they touched deeper. This was especially true for backstrokers. I dove back for the finish and touched low on the wall.”

Nina Harmar remembers some sketchy finishes in the Rome Olympics:

“I remember in Rome all timing and judging was done by humans and there were often controversial finishes and often the winner’s time was a tenth of a second or two slower that the runner-up.”

Satoko Tanaka was happy she did her best time:

“I was 22 years old at the Tokyo Olympics, the others were teenagers. I didn’t think I had a chance to win. I simply wanted to do my best time. I did that and I broke the existing world record. I have always been happy with my effort, my time and my place. It was my last swim as a competitor.”

Post-Race

All this new technology was available and all these people standing around yet nobody knew the exact the order of the finish? It is hard to believe with today’s instant results but that is how it unfolded in 1964.

Kiki Caron remembers:

“At the end of the race my coach Miss Berlioux, shows me two fingers, to announce the silver medal. When she came to swim the nationals in 65, she took benefit of the Olympics experience and beat Ferguson. I thought It was the lack of world class experience which I needed in 64 to win the gold.”

Cathy Ferguson explains what went on after the finish:

“1964 was the first-year electronic timing was used but it was not official. There were sight judges, timers and button pushers on each lane. It was not like now when you can see your time immediately and you know the results immediately. I did not know I had won until they announced the winners. Peter Daland (was our Olympic Team Coach as well) had his own time so told me just prior to the announcement.”

The Results

  • Gold: Cathy Ferguson (WR) – 1:07.7
  • Silver: Kiki Caron – 1:07.9
  • Bronze: Ginny Duenkel – 1:08.0
  • Fourth: Satoko Tanaka – 1:08.6
  • Fifth: Nina Harmar – 1:09.4
  • Sixth: Linda Ludgrove – 1:09.5
  • Seventh: Eileen Weir – 1:09.7
  • Eighth: Jill Norfolk – 1:11.2

Conclusion

There is something raw and elemental about great racers. They just love to race. Kiki Caron came to the U.S. and beat Cathy Ferguson in the 1965 U.S. Nationals. The next year in 1966, Cathy went to France and discovered how famous Kiki was in France. Although this time, Cathy won the race. Kiki says “It was a “yè yè” time and we went shopping, dancing in trendy clubs like two chums.”

These great racers all intersected in one race but their impact was to set the stage for generations of women swimmers to come. Dr. Cathy Ferguson went on to earn a doctorate in Education Administration. Satoko Tanaka has taught swimming to over 100,000 asthmatic children over the last thirty years and she firmly believes the 2020ne Olympics Games in Tokyo will take place. Christine “Kiki” Caron went on to become the first woman from a European country to carry her nation’s flag in the opening ceremonies of the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. All these great racers went on to carry the flag of opportunity for future generations – the great race we all compete in.

Notes:

  1. We highly recommend a wonderful website by Martin Osborne at the University of Toronto – (https://mjo.osborne.economics.utoronto.ca/index.php/swim). He has pulled together much of FINA’s world record data points and it provides a graphical view of the progression of swimming’s world records over the years. For a detailed description of his work see his notes section. We will use Martin’s data to highlight the details of the women’s long course 100-meter backstroke world record progression
  2. Yes, “yè yè” is a term – see this Wikipedia entry. In short, it is pronounced “yeah yeah” and is a style of pop-music that emerged in southern Europe in the early 1960’s. It was heavily influenced by the Beatles.

Thank you

The authors wish to thank the great racers who contributed generously to this article – Christine “Kiki” Caron, Cathy Ferguson, Nina Harmar Thompson and Satoko Tanaka. The contributions from Christine Caron would not have been possible without the translation skills of Nicolas Granger and the comments from Satoko Tanaka would not have been possible with the help of Akira Isahai.
Written by Brenda Borgh Bartlett and David Bartlett, who reside in Wayne, Pennsylvania.

If you have an idea for a ‘Great Race’ please contact them at greatswimraces@gmail.com.

5 comments

  1. avatar
    Andy C.

    Another fantastic piece about an amazing moment in Olympic swimming history. Keep ’em coming please!!

  2. avatar
    Gudrun Graesser

    I really enjoyed the reading and envisioned the 1964 race between the female swimmers. Well done Brenda & Dave!

  3. avatar
    Tim Walsh

    Great read – even for a non-swimmer. Thanks for sharing. And the nod to Steph.

  4. avatar
    Kip Virts

    Excellent article. You really get the feel of the race, and the hair stood on the back of my neck, as my eyes watered. Great job

  5. avatar
    Tony Bartle

    Well Done! Never a surprise when these two are involved…Congrats to Brenda and Dave for another great article, keep them coming.

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