Meet Elizabeth Edmondson, The Youngest Paralympian At The 1964 Tokyo Games
The Summer Paralympic and Olympic Games make their return to Japan in 2020, after a 56 year absence. For some it seems like an eternity, others a not so distant memory, but it is undeniable the changes that Tokyo and The Paralympic Games have undergone. For many individuals the 1964 games were a very special time, traveling and competing in sports that they loved. However for one individual the experience was an especially unique one.
Australian Paralympian, Elizabeth Edmondson at just 14 years and 4 months old, was the youngest competitor at the 1964 Paralympic Games. Not only would she be the youngest athlete at the games, but would go on to claim three gold medals and hold several world records. Elizabeth’s record of being the youngest Australian Paralympic swimmer to win a medal lasted for 48 years. She was a pioneer in helping establish not only the Australian Paralympic Team, but bring some notoriety to the games as a whole. Ms. Edmondson was kind enough to answer some questions and provide some of her original photos from here experience. Here is her story.
Elizabeth Edmondson was born July 1st 1950, to Julie and Frank Edmondson. Her parents met at the Perth airport four years prior in 1946, falling in love. They decided to get married a year later and start a family. Elizabeth would be the second daughter of the Edmondson family, behind her older sister Jo, who was born two years before. Julie, Frank, Jo and Elizabeth were seemingly to be the ideal 1950’s family with a normal life. Little did they know an upcoming diagnosis, and some difficult circumstances would lead to some great achievements down the road.
Just months after Elizabeths first birthday, on September 27th 1951, she was diagnosed with polio. This would be some very difficult times for the Edmondson family, as Elizabeth would be admitted into the infectious disease unit of the hospital.
One long month would pass before Elizabeth’s parents could visit her. For the next 14 months Elizabeth would spend much of her time at the hospital, occasionally visiting home. Her parents, who didn’t own a car at the time were gifted one from Elizabeth’s grandparents to be able to make the trip to see their young daughter. Elizabeth would continue to recover before finally being discharged on November 28th 1952. This was a celebrated day in the Edmondson’s household, but they knew they were in for some challenges. Elizabeth upon returning to her household, had lost almost all of the functionality of her legs.
Once home, the first challenge Elizabeth faced was learning how to walk. A process that every child goes through, but for Elizabeth a slightly different approach would have to be taken. This would be indicative of the way she would approach life, meeting challenges with effort and family support. Elizabeth’s father, Frank would be a tremendous driving force on her road to recovery. With the aid of a caliper on her right leg and homemade parallel bars, Elizabeth would slowly build up her strength. She was even rewarded a little extra treat in the form of jellybeans for each length she completed. Despite all of her handwork she still recalls facing struggles with mobility early on.
“One of my earliest childhood memories was walking to kindergarten. I was holding tightly onto my mother’s hand, because I thought I would be blown away in the strong wind!”
- Elizabeth Edmondson
Elizabeth would learn to deal with her impaired mobility in various aspects of her life. Whether that be sleeping with her legs in plaster casts, or cutting holes in her shoes to fit her unevenly sized feet. She would regularly attend exercises at the Golden Age Hospital, doing physio therapy to build and maintain her muscle strength. Much of the training would be done so in a large bath about three meters squared in size. This let Elizabeth become very familiar to the sensation of being immersed in water, but little did she know that this would be one of her first steps to becoming a gold medal winning Paralympian.
Road To The Gold Medal
Elizabeth started swimming at the age of five years old. She would be taught by her coach Mr. Hughes, practicing in Swan River with the jelly fish. Here she would learn three different strokes: the backstroke, freestyle (front crawl), and the doggy paddle. To teach Elizabeth how to backstroke, Mr. Hughes would support her head above the water while walking backwards, until she eventually built up her skill. For freestyle and the dog paddle, Mr.Hughes would use a piece of wood tied to a rope, which Elizabeth would hold on to while he towed her up and down the river. It didn’t take long for her training to bring on success.
“My first success in swimming was coming in 3rd in the dog paddle race in Year 1 at the school sports event.”
- Elizabeth Edmondson
It wasn’t until years later that Elizabeth began to take swimming seriously in a competitive atmosphere. At the beginning of 1964, Pam her younger sister was planning to go meet with swimming coach Tony Howson for a two week course. Elizabeth told her mother that she wanted to go as well, and after completing the course had a conversation with Tony. He told Elizabeth that she should join his swimming squad at Beatty Park Pool, the site of the 1962 Commonwealth Games. It was during this time that Elizabeth and her family learned about paraplegic swimming. Thus her competitive training began, swimming three times a week at the West Perth Amateur Swimming and Life Saving Club. Elizabeth’s next step was to see if she was eligible for paraplegic swimming, and would visit Dr. Bedbrook to confirm.
“In those days the classification was that you had to have at least 1½ limbs with paraplegia and used a wheelchair. Class A was for Quadriplegics and I was classified Class E, with the least disability. As I walked with the aid of a caliper, I was given a wheelchair when I went to Tokyo.”
- Elizabeth Edmondson
On June 1st 1964, Elizabeth began her first swimming journal. By this point her training had ramped up to swimming every afternoon. As soon as school was done, her mother would pick her up and drive her to practice. Elizabeth would change into her swimmers on the 15 km drive to the facility, so she could immediately jump into the pool upon arrival. Elizabeth recalls she swam over six kilometers of freestyle in the first week. By the fourth week she was also training in the 200m breaststroke and backstroke. This was when she would start keeping her records in a swimming journal to track her progress.
Results would come quickly for the talented young swimmer. On the 5th of July after a freestyle race, Tony walked up to Elizabeth with some excitement. He said that she had just broken the world record, swimming the 50 meter freestyle with a time of 43.4 seconds. It would appear on the news later that night and ultimately propelling her to be selected to a team that would compete at the national competition in Adelaide. At this competition Elizabeth swam two events. The first was the 50 meter freestyle with a time of 41.8 seconds. This would be good enough for second behind Paralympian Daphne Ceeney. Elizabeth would claim victory in the class E 50 meter back stroke event, with an astonishing time of 41.8 seconds. A whole 15.2 seconds faster than the Commonwealth record that had been established two years prior.
“We swam at the Unley pool, which was south of Adelaide. I think we stayed in an old hospital building, as there was no suitable accommodation in those days. I returned home on the 13th September. The team for Tokyo was not announced until 4 days later, and my photo appeared in the paper. “
- Elizabeth Edmondson
Once the Paralympic team was announced, Dr. Bedrook came to the Edmondson’s household to talk to her parents. He reassured them that he would take good care of her, if they allowed her to go to Tokyo. Her family agreed she couldn’t pass up this opportunity. Back then the family did not travel with the team as they do now. Elizabeth would travel to Sydney on November 3rd to meet with the rest of the Australian Paralympic Team. This would be the first time meeting most of the other members. Sadly Elizabeth didn’t keep in touch with them following the games. There would be a quick practice swim on Thursday (November 5th), before flying out of Sydney to Tokyo. This would mark the beginning of Elizabeth’s Paralympic journey.
The 1964 Paralympic Games
At the time, the games was actually under a different name. Its title was the Thirteenth International Stoke Mandeville Games. The term “Paralympics” was first used at the 1964 games in Tokyo during the event, but was an unofficial title. It wouldn’t be until 1984 that the International Olympic Committee would approve the term for official use. Today the 1964 Tokyo Games are seen as being the second official Paralympic games.
Elizabeth would arrive in Tokyo on the 6th, two days before the opening ceremonies. She was given an itinerary of the games, along with a athletes village pass. The Australian Team consisted of fifteen athletes, along with eight escorts. Most athletes at this time competed in several sports, such as Elizabeth’s fellow teammate, Daphne Ceeney . Daphne competed in swimming, table tennis, archery, fencing and athletics. For Elizabeth, it was an exciting time, she also held a remarkable title as well.
“At the age of 14 years and 4 months, I became the youngest person to represent Australia in swimming, and the youngest competitor at the Tokyo Paralympic Games in 1964.”
- Elizabeth Edmondson
This would be just one record that Elizabeth would claim at these games. Elizabeth would end up winning gold in three different events, setting multiple records in the class 5 division. The class 5 division was for those with the least amount of disability. The first gold medal would be claimed in the 50 meter breast stroke with a time of 1.04.6. Elizabeth would go on to win both the gold in the 50 meter backstroke with a time of 50.8 seconds and in the freestyle swim with a time of 39.7 seconds. All three of these would be world records. Being presented one of the medals, Elizabeth recalls the Englishman saying some unique words. The English man who would present her with a medal would say, “Congratulations you flaming drongo”.
Dr. Bedrook sent a telegram to her parents, following Elizabeth’s success at the games. The games were not televised in those days and the internet not yet invented. Her mother upon receiving the message would then contact her school, which her younger sister Pam also attended. Needless to say, Pam’s classmates were all impressed. Her older sister Jo also had some words of advice and left a special little mark on her hardware.
“Jo had heard that the more gold there was in a medal, the softer it is- so she bit it and I now have a tooth mark in one of the medals.”
- Elizabeth Edmondson
There were other memories that Elizabeth remembers from her six days in Japan. Dr. Bedbrook took Elizabeth to a tea tasting ceremony. Although the experience was nice, she didn’t enjoy the tea, but made a kind gesture to the host. On the last day in Japan, Elizabeth finally got a glance of Mount Fuji from the city, which had been blocked by smog . Once leaving Tokyo, Elizabeth had a three day stop over in Hong Kong before finally returning home.
Once returning to Australia, Elizabeth landed in Sydney. At the airport the press was waiting to interview the athletes. Much attention was given to the youngster who had set multiple world records at the age of 14. Elizabeth recalls how quite a few of the athletes were actually carried off of the plane, as they did not have the accessible terminals we see today. It wasn’t until November 17th that Edmondson would arrive back home in Perth. She was once again met by press, but also her family members ready to congratulate her. To Elizabeth's delight she received many phone calls, telegrams, letters and cards from all across Australia. She had gained quite a few fans due to her results and image as a role model. Elizabeth would return the next day to school as if seemingly nothing had happened at all.
Ms. Edmondson’s Paralympain career would not end here. She would go on to compete in the 1968 games in Israel. There she would win another two gold medals in the 50 meter and 100 meter freestyle, while setting world records in both. Elizabeth would also win a silver in the 50 meter backstroke, behind only Verschoor of the Netherlands. Upon setting new records, she was this time presented an official document, unfortunately there was a little mistake.
“In Israel, I received a copy of World Records held and was surprised to find that “Edmonson of Austria” had three world records in swimming. It has only been in the last 15 years, with the advent of the internet, that I was able to email the International Paralympic Committee to ask them to change the record book to read “Edmondson from Australia”.
- Elizabeth Edmondson
Following her success in a second international event, Elizabeth was given the honor of vising garden parties held by the government. She was even able to meet the Queen Mother. This would be one of the last public appearances before retiring from competition.
Elizabeth Edmondson would retire at eighteen. Despite her success at international events, there was no actual monetary support for athletes. Elizabeth and her family decided that it would be best to pursue a career instead. She would eventually find a job and be hired by Telstra, Australia’s largest telecommunications company. This is where she would meet her future husband Ken. The two would get married and eventually have their daughter Ruth.
For many years, career and family would be Elizabeth’s focus. However as time went on, and Ruth grew up, Elizabeth would come to be more involved with the community she was a part of so long ago. Today Elizabeth goes around giving talks about her career to aspiring Paralympians. She’s contributed to various organizations, such as lending her scrap book to the W.A Wheelchair Sports (now called Rebound WA), to write The W.A Paralympic History. Elizabeth also has recently contributed to the Australian Paralympic Committee to provide information for the HOPAU project. This has put things into perspective of her role in the games over 50 years ago.
“Tokyo was a long time ago, and with no competition in between games, I sort of forgot I am a Paralympian! With more and more publicity and the HOPAU project- I am realising what a great honour and achievement it was all those years ago.”
- Elizabeth Edmondson.
Elizabeth would make a comeback to the competitive swimming community in 2006. While browsing stores at her local shopping centre, Elizabeth saw a display for the Stadium Masters Swimming Club. The notion of being part of a team again excited her, and decided to join. The Stadium Masters had been active in the Paralympic community for quite sometime, raising thousands of dollars for Paralympic Swimming before Elizabeth ever decided to join.
Elizabeth began to train again, and had her first swimming event in May 2007. She was 56 years old at the time, but was still considered the baby of the team. The Masters Swimming Nationals isn’t just for parapelegic athletes, but for everyone. She was able to place first in her heat of the 100 meter breaststroke with a time of 2:57.53 against those with full functionality of their limbs, and it would be the first time Elizabeth would see her time in lights.
The following year of 2008 would be a big year for Elizabeth. In June, she was an inaugural inductee into the W.A Swimming Hall of Fame. That joyous moment however would turn into a much more serious one just six months later. In December of 2008, a diagnosis of breast cancer was given to Elizabeth. Surgery was required and she underwent a lumpectomy. Despite this misfortune Elizabeth stayed strong and remembered how friends and family’s positive attitude would help uplift her.
“After surgery, I emailed my friends and told them I now had one concave and one convex breast. One friend then asked, “Does that mean you will swim round in circles?” Luckily, when I resumed swimming in early 2009, I was still able to swim in a straight line!”
- Elizabeth Edmondson
Elizabeth Edmondson claims to only ever cried over swimming twice in her life. The first time was returning to competitive swimming a mere year after her fight with cancer. She went to the Masters Swimming Nationals in Brisbane, held in the April of 2009. There she was able to accomplish some impressive times and for the first time wore “proper racing bathers”. The feelings started to build when her team had come third in the 4 x 50 medley relay. She cried when presented her medals. The second time she cried was while preparing a presentation she would give in Cairns, to Pan Pacific Athletes. She discovered an envelope of negatives that she believed would be the photos from her time in Japan all those years ago. Deciding to get them developed, she went to a camera shop to have them taken care of. What would happen was a touching moment for her and her family.
“Tuesday morning, I thought I had better check the photos and opened the first photo. I stared at it and thought the trees are green, the people are in colour too, have they tinted the photo? And then it dawned on me, the whole photo is in colour. I then looked at the next photo and sure enough it was in colour too. This is when I started crying as I realized what a find this was. Not just for me, but for the Australian Paralympic community as well. Previously these photos had only been printed in black and white as it cost too much to print in colour.”
– Elizabeth Edmondson
Elizabeth is now not only part of the athletic scene of Australia, but also likes to make a difference in her community. She focuses on campaigns to create better access for people with disabilities. Sitting on six different government and corporate advisory committees, she voices her concerns. Some notable changes that have been made due to Elizabeth’s suggestions are: changing the accessibility at Glendalough Train Station to include wider ramps and changing the path ways from cobblestone to concrete at the Scarborough Beach. Elizabeth also acts as a watchful eye for illegally parked vehicles on footpaths used by those in wheelchairs. Despite undergoing shoulder surgery in February 2012, Elizabeth stays active in several clubs like swimming, scrabble and the Perth Lego Users Group. She has no intention of slowing down anytime soon and serves as a positive role model on how to approach life.
“I intend to keep swimming for as long as I can, as the motto for the World Masters Games was “Fit, Fun and Forever Young”, indeed a wonderful quote to live by.”
- Elizabeth Edmondson
If you wish to contact me, you can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org