15 Mar 2017

'If you were twenty, you were old'

From Eyewitness, 3:30 pm on 15 March 2017

How young is too young to compete in international sport? Rebecca Perrott had an outstanding swimming career which began when she was picked at the age of 12 to represent Fiji at the 1974 Commonwealth Games in Christchurch. Rebecca was the youngest athlete there and she tells Eyewitness producer Justin Gregory that taking up swimming had a lot to do with sibling rivalry.

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A portrait of swimmer Rebecca Perrott.

Rebecca Perrott Photo: Supplied.

Like everyone who saw the '74 Commonwealth Games, Rebecca Perrott  clearly remembers New Zealand runner Dick Taylor winning the 1500m finals on the opening day. She laughs at the memory of weightlifter Graham May falling on his face during one of his lifts and recalls with awe the moment legendary Australian swimmer Michael Wenden announced his retirement by tossing his togs into the crowd.

What she doesn't remember is whether she felt nervous before her races.The Games were more than forty years ago and astonishingly, Rebecca was only twelve at the time; the youngest competitor there.

"I get very nervous now. I can't imagine it was any different back then!'

Born in Wellington in 1961, Rebecca moved to Fiji with her family in the early 70’s when her father worked for the University of the South Pacific. Her big sister Jane was shoulder-tapped to join the Suva swimming club and a few months later, Rebecca joined her - much to her sister's annoyance.

"She hated the fact that anything she did, I would eventually end up doing, too."

With good coaching and regular training, Rebecca's times kept on improving and her development was so fast that, despite not having made the qualifying times for the Games, she was picked on potential and given a licence to simply swim as fast as she could. With her sister also in the team and Mum along to take care of them, they flew to Christchurch.

The official logo for the 1974 British Commonwealth Games.

The official logo for the 1974 British Commonwealth Games. Photo: Supplied.

The 10th British Commonwealth Games began on 24 January 1974 at the brand new QEII Park in the suburb of North New Brighton.  Fiji was one of 38 teams at what was billed as the "friendly games". The '74 Games were a mix of the old and the new; this was be the last time the word "British" would be used in the official title and the first time that TV coverage of most events would be in colour, including the swimming. With a catchy theme song and an eye- catching logo, the Commonwealth Games were a bit of a big deal. Not that Rebecca knew that.

"We lived in Fiji; no TV, there was no internet back then."

"I went into (the Games) very innocent and naive."

By the time she lined up for her heats, Rebecca had reached the venerable age of 12 and a half. While that might seem young to compete internationally today, it wasn’t so exceptional in 1974. The Games were still an amateur event and with the need to earn a living outside your sport, most competitors found it difficult to carry on after leaving school or university. Most of the swimmers around Rebecca were also teenagers; world record holder Jennifer Turrall was just 13 but would win three medals (including a gold) at these Games. Rebecca Perrott was tall and strong for her age and no one questioned her right to be there.

A portrait of Olympic and Commonwealth Games swimmer Rebecca Perrott leaning on the edge of a swimming pool and smiling at the camera.

Olympic and Commonwealth Games swimmer Rebecca Perrott. Photo: Supplied.

"When I was swimming, if you were over twenty, you were old."

Rebecca's events were the 400 and 800m freestyle; her sister Jane competed in the breaststroke. Despite coming last and second last in her heats, Rebecca recorded two personal bests and was delighted with her performance.

"I definitely deserved my place in the team."

In the end, Rebecca Perrott had a whale of a time at the 1974 Commonwealth Games. She wasn’t overawed by lining up next to great swimmers because she didn’t really know who they were and any emotional damage from losing seems to have been slight. 

"I don't think it affected me negatively or positively" says Rebecca. "It probably did help a little bit in that the next time I went to (an event) I had some awareness I what I was going to.

"I think it maybe showed me where I could be one day."

And where she could be was at the top of her field. At 15 Rebecca was selected for the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal, this time swimming for New Zealand.  She qualified fastest for the 400m final and finished fourth, missing a medal by 0.16 of a second.  Rebecca bossed the Edmonton Commonwealth Games two years later, winning gold in the 200m freestyle, silver in the 200m individual medley and bronze medals in both the 400 and 800m freestyle. She was awarded an MBE the same year. New Zealand's involvement in the boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics prevented her from competing there and Rebecca retired from international swimming the next year at the ripe old age of 20; a normal age for swimmers at that time. She moved from the pool to the beach to represent New Zealand in surf lifesaving and was later inducted into the New Zealand Sports Hall of Fame

Nowadays Rebecca Perrott lives in the Wellington region, coaches swimming and competes in World Masters events. She still thoroughly loves the sport she took up all those years ago in Fiji and that took her so far at such a young age. Her sister is fine with it now, too.

This story was produced by Justin Gregory and used archival audio from Nga Taonga Sound and Vision.  You can subscribe or listen to every Eyewitness podcast on iTunes or at radionz.co.nz/series.

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