At just 14, Elizabeth Edmondson became the youngest Australian to claim an individual gold medal for swimming at either an Olympics or Paralympics.
It is a record that still stands today, but 55 years later she is only just starting to get recognition for her achievement.
“I was 14 and I expected to win, and I did,” Edmondson recalled from her home in Perth’s northern suburbs.
“There was only one race [for each event] and that was it, because there wasn’t that many competitors.”
Edmondson’s medals from the 1964 Tokyo Paralympics are proudly displayed in her home, framed alongside pictures of her competing at various events.
But if not for a slice of luck, she may not have made it to the Games at all.
“I started swimming in January of 1964 with my sister. We trained at Tony Howson’s pool at the Commonwealth Games village in City Beach,” she said.
“I think he only had a 12.5-metre pool and after two weeks he said come and train with the squad at Beatty Park, which had opened for the Commonwealth Games in 1962.”
A chance encounter
It was there that Edmondson, who had been diagnosed with polio when she was just 15 months old and spent a year in hospital, caught the eye of Howson’s wife.
She was a physiotherapist who worked for Sir George Bedbrook, the founder of the Paralympic movement in Australia.
“That’s how I found out about the Paralympics, through Tony’s wife,” Edmondson said.
“When I had just turned 14, a couple of days later, Tony came up to me and said ‘you’ve just broken a world record’.”
“Before I knew it, I went to Adelaide [for trials] and I was selected for Tokyo.”
A gold medal, then back to school
Edmondson can still recall travelling to Tokyo 55 years ago with her 14 teammates.
“The team all met up in Sydney, and that was the first time I had met the team,” she said.
‘We then flew to Hong Kong, to Manila and then to Tokyo, and that took nearly 24 hours.”
But a lack of record keeping, combined with the limitations of technology at the time, meant she lost contact with most of her teammates from that Games.
“I got off the plane and went back to school the next day as if nothing had happened,” she said.
“There was no reception. Government House generally gives a reception for the athletes, no ticker-tape parade. It was back to school and I sort of forgot about it.”
Since 2000, the Australian Paralympic Committee has been writing the history of the Games on Wikipedia, something Edmondson has been involved with.
It was through this work that she understood what she had achieved in Tokyo all those years ago.
“I suddenly sort of realised, ‘oh yes I am a Paralympian’, and I’m sort of getting the recognition now,” she said.
That recognition has grown in recent years, with Edmondson receiving several awards along with becoming the first person inducted into WA Swimming’s Hall of Legends last year.
Raising the Paralympic profile
As someone who enjoyed success through the opportunities provided by the Paralympic movement, Edmondson said the value of the Games could not be overstated.
“It gives recognition to people with disability,” she said.
“It’s more on the television [these days], and people are much more interested and know about it, and I think there is much more awareness.
“It can only expand.”
The Tokyo Paralympics begin on August 25, 2020.
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