OLYMPIC swimming champion Andrew “Boy” Charlton was born 110 years ago this week and although lasting memorials have been erected in the city of his birth, few people today are aware of his strong connection to the Gunnedah district.
A good starting place to find out more about this unassuming young man is the Gunnedah and District Historical Society’s Water Tower Museum, where his Australian cap from the 1932 Olympic Games in Los Angeles is on display.
Born at Crows Nest on August 12, 1907, to Oswald and Ada Charlton, “The Boy”, as he was known, came to Gunnedah in 1925, the year after his gold-medal triumph in the 1500 metres at the Paris Olympics.
He worked for seven years as a jackaroo on the Namoi River property, Kurrumbede, owned by the family of poet Dorothea Mackellar. Although he was unfamiliar with country life, Charlton soon learned to ride a horse and settle in to life on the land.
Country towns like Gunnedah did not have the luxury of a swimming pool. The reluctant hero trained in a popular swimming hole near Cohen’s Bridge. Many local young youngsters proudly boasted that they had trained with Boy Charlton after jumping into the water during an exhibition swim.
A child prodigy, Charlton stunned everyone by swimming 19 seconds inside the world record in the NSW half-mile senior title when he was just 15 years of age.
Swimming officials were keen to test the youngster against Europe’s finest swimmer, Arne Borg, of Sweden.
A number of exhibition swims were set up in Sydney.
Borg at the time held four world records but the emerging young star beat him each time.
A few days after his 17th birthday, Charlton defeated Borg on the national stage.
He finished in world record time 40 metres in front of the Swede and the rest of the field in the 1500m.
In the 400 yards, both Borg and Charlton were defeated by Johnny Weissmuller, who went on to movie stardom as Tarzan.
Although he too was offered a chance to star in the movies, the public adulation made Charlton feel uncomfortable and he was quite happy to live in relative anonymity at Kurrumbede.
In 1927, he was pressured into making a comeback to competitive swimming.
And with only the Namoi River as his training pool, he beat Japanese champion Katsuo Takaishi in world record time over 880 yards at Sydney’s Domain Baths.
He returned to Kurrumbede after the 1928 Olympic Games in Amsterdam with silver medals in the 400 and 1500 yards event.