Passages: Jean Hurring, New Zealand’s Only Women’s Swimming Olympic Medalist, 89

Jean Hurring, right, and husband Lincoln Hurring Photo Courtesy: Swimming NZ

Jean Hurring (nee Stewart), who won bronze in the women’s 100 backstroke at the 1952 Olympics and competed at the 1956 Games, died Sunday in her native New Zealand. She was 89 years old.

Hurring, competed then under her maiden name Jean Stewart, won bronze in the 100 back in Helsinki, finishing behind South Africa’s Joan Harrison and Geertje Wielema of the Netherlands. In the final, Hurring was given the same time, 1:15.8, as Joke de Korte of Holland, but the finish judges gave Hurring the nod to win bronze, part of a furious comeback in which she was seventh after 50 meters.

It remains the only Olympic swimming medal won by a woman from New Zealand. She also competed in the 1956 Melbourne Games but didn’t escape the heats in her event.

“Jean Hurring’s swimming legacy is immeasurable,” said Swimming NZ president Dave Gerrard. “Her standing as an Olympic medalist and her contribution to water safety, teaching countless children to swim stamps Jean as one of our finest.”

So unconventional was Hurring’s interest in swimming before the 1952 Games that she essentially trained without a coach. Regarded as a “force of nature,” she was in charge of making sure she had success in the pool.

From the New Zealand Herald:

“In her heyday, New Zealand didn’t have a coach, and no one even held a stop watch for her at the Games in Finland. Her mentor in Dunedin was a chap named Bill Wallace, an “enthusiast” more than anything.

“She was ahead of her time though, setting up a pulley in her Dunedin bedroom for swim-specific weight training. The weights would swing wildly so she spread cushions around to limit any damage.

“Wallace was interested in horse racing and got some of his concepts from there, leading to Hurring adopting innovative interval training.”

The delegation to Helsinki was so small that Hurring roomed with track star Yvette (Williams) Corlett, who won the long jump gold medal. Both hailed from Dunedin and grew so close that Williams trusted Hurring to ferry her gold medal back to New Zealand as she stayed in Europe.

Hurring won medals in backstroke at the Empire Games (the precursor to the Commonwealth Games) in 1950 and 1954. She won 12 national titles in backstroke and butterfly and is a member of the New Zealand Sports Hall of Fame.

She married a fellow swimmer, Lincoln Hurring, who died in 1993. Their son, Gary Hurring, won a silver medal in the 1978 World Championships in the 200 backstroke and claimed Commonwealth Games gold in that event the same summer. He was denied a chance to swim at the 1980 Olympics due to New Zealand joining the U.S.-led boycott, but finished fourth and fifth in the two backstroke events in Los Angeles in 1984. He coached New Zealand’s team at the 2016 Rio Games.

“She was quite a quiet achiever,” New Zealand Olympic Committee CEO Kereyn Smith said Jean Hurring. “I met a few times and I remember her as a really lovely woman. That era of athletes like Jean and Yvette continued to give their sporting knowledge and expertise for a lifetime – Jean through teaching so many kids to swim.”