The only woman to compete with men and beat them in one of the toughest sports imaginable is WA’s own Shelley Taylor-Smith. At the end of her career she topped the world rankings in Open-Water Marathon swimming and pushed out the boundaries for female athletes. Not bad for a kid who once staggered around Tuart Hill High School crippled with scoliosis.
“When I look back at some of the roadblocks in my life – my spinal problems and my father dying from emphysema when I was 15 – there’s no doubt they helped to foster a great deal of resilience and certainly prepared me for life as a marathon swimmer.”
“I only started swimming as a kid because my younger sister was asthmatic, and back then she was the one with all the talent!”
“Dad’s death had a major impact on our family. He worked as a chaplain in the navy, but he was also a stoker and that’s where the lung cancer stemmed from. Mum became an armed forces widow but it took her 30 years to finally receive a pension and it was never back-dated. It made life very tough for all of us.”
Fighting to stay in the swim
“We were very much working-class but we never wanted for anything and always felt loved. The doctors wanted to put a steel rod in my back which would’ve meant the end of swimming for me. I begged mum and dad not to let that happen and they supported me. I owe them a lot.”
Throughout the 1990s Shelley was smashing world records from Manhattan to Wollongong but it didn’t begin quite so auspiciously.
“I failed miserably in 1991 and had my first DNF [Did not Finish] and that’s something no athlete wants to see on their record. One of my competitors came up to me after the race and said, ‘Thank god, you’re human after all!”
“I was suffering from severe hypothermia and my coach saved my life by pulling me out of the water. It was exacerbated by my menstrual cycle because that affects your body temperature, but nonetheless I felt overwhelmed by guilt and shame. I always took representing Australia very seriously.”
“I spoke to an Argentinian competitor who was regarded as the King of Marathon swimming and he reminded me that how I responded to this setback was completely up to me. Two weeks later I finished first in Atlantic City, the first woman to win a professional event open to both men and women.”
“I owe a lot to my male competitors because they brought out the best in me. That very same Argentinian swimmer later said to me, ‘Shelley, you are dangerous when wet!”
Perils of swimming
Towards the end of that golden decade it all came crashing down for Shelley Taylor-Smith and the catalyst was a training swim at a beach with an all-too familiar name.
“In 1997 I was swimming at Shelley Beach near Manly in Sydney and my skin started to sting. The local sewerage pond had overflowed and I was swimming in it! My body felt as though it was burning and I must have ingested toxins because within hours I had vomiting and diarrhoea.”
“It tipped me over the edge and I was having trouble even finishing a training session. Needless to say, I wasn’t selected in the Australian team but I continued preparing for a professional World Series race in Argentina. A doctor told me I had Giardia, jaundice and Candida with Irritable Bowel Syndrome thrown in for good measure!”
“He also said to me that if I didn’t heed the warning signs I’d be dead in six months.”
Once again, Shelley’s resilience came to the fore and a race mid-way through the following year brought down the curtain on a stellar career.
“I wanted to go out with a big win so I did one last deal with my body. On July 14, 1998, I won in Manhattan and that was 10 years to the day since my first world title in France. That was as good as it gets and I stepped away from my sport doing exactly what I loved – racing men!”
Swimming is a metaphor for life, says Shelley and she reinforces the importance of teaching children to feel confident in the water.
“My motto is that if you don’t quit you’ll make it! The only limits are the ones we put on ourselves. I’m also pushing hard to get compulsory swimming back on the WA education syllabus. It’s the only sport that saves lives!”
7 x Women’s World Marathon Swimming Champion
5 x Winner Manhattan Island Swim
15 World Swimming Records
2008 Inducted International Swimming Hall of Fame
Swan River Trust and Burswood Park Board Member