New book honours Cecil Healy, Olympic Champion, whose life was cut short by war


Hell and Highwater

Cecil Healy, Olympic Champion whose life was cut short by war

By Rochelle Nicholls

Published by Big Sky Publishing
RRP $34.99 in hardback • ISBN 9781925675122

This is a fascinating tale of a man unknown to most Australians – and a tragedy.

Cecil Healy was born in Sydney in 1881 but lost his father at an early age, reducing the large family to a life of struggle. He was introduced to swimming at school and soon became so proficient that he broke world records, eventually becoming an Olympic champion. And in between times, he became involved with the surf-lifesaving movement, effecting numerous surf rescues on his way to becoming Club Captain of the Manly Surf Club.

But this is only a small part of why Cecil Healy deserves to be remembered. Despite being world record holder for the 100 yards freestyle, lack of money prevented Healy from competing at the 1904 and 1908 Olympics. The 1912 Games in Stockholm finally gave Healy the opportunity to display his talent but it transpired in a way in which nobody could have anticipated. The fastest 100 m swimmers at this time was an American, Duke Kahanamoku, but after winning his second round heat, he mistakenly believed that this granted him automatic entry into the final.

Disqualified for missing his semi-final, it was only after the personal intervention of Healy that Kahanamoku and his two fellow Americans were reinstated. And you guessed it, the Duke defeated Healy in a closely fought final. He did however extract some sort of revenge when the Australians defeated the American team in the 4 x 200m relay final.

But the story of Healy does not end with this supreme act of sportsmanship.

He enlisted in the AIF in 1915 and travelled to the Western Front in 1916. To his chagrin, he was kept behind the lines at the Base Depot. Frustrated at being kept away from the action, he badgered his superiors until they eventually relented and after being promoted to second lieutenant, was appointed a platoon commander in the 19thBattalion. However the story does not end well.

On 29 August 1918, he led his platoon into battle at Sword Wood where he was cut down attempting to capture a German machine gun post.

Rochelle Nicholls is to be congratulated for fleshing out this extraordinary story and bringing it to life in this most entertaining book.

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