Annette Kellerman

In 1905, Annette Kellerman became the first female long distance swimmer for Australia.

Honour Roll

Annette Kellerman, born in Marrickville, Sydney, on 6 July 1886, was never a strong child. She was diagnosed with rickets, but it may have been polio, forcing her to wear leg braces from an early age. Her mother wisely took her to swimming lessons at Cavill's baths from the time she was six years old, which enabled her to discard the leg irons by the time she turned fifteen. It also gave her a love of swimming.

In 1902 she won the inaugural New South Wales women's championship in the 100 yard and one mile races. Unfortunately, there was no higher level of competitive swimming open to her so she turned to long distance and exhibition swimming. The Olympics were not yet open to women as Baron Pierre De Coubertin, who had revived the ancient Olympics, wanted to keep the tradition of the games as a masculine endeavour. By 1912, he was outvoted and swimming was introduced for women. This was too late for Annette Kellerman.

Her father was often out of work so she was determined to make money for the family. As a schoolgirl she gave exhibitions of swimming and diving at the Melbourne Baths, performed a mermaid act at Princes Court entertainment centre and swam with the fishes at the Exhibition Building Aquarium. In 1905, after swimming along the Yarra, Annette headed for Europe and swum along the Thames, down the river Seine and along the Danube, smashing records on the way.

In America in 1907, Annette attempted a long-distance swim wearing a tight-fitting boy's costume made of black wool, which covered her entire body but had short legs. She was arrested for 'indecent exposure'. With no money for a lawyer she was forced to defend herself and pointed out to the judge that swimming with sleeves and heavy bloomers was 'like swimming in a ball gown'. The judge was sympathetic and dismissed the case, helping to relax laws for women's swimwear.

Annette became notorious following this case which generated much publicity world-wide, and she soon found herself making silent movies in Hollywood and touring the world with her vaudeville acts. Her movie career flourished until the advent of 'talkies', and she was alternately known as the 'Australian Mermaid' or 'Diving Venus'.

With her magnificent physique Annette became an authority on physical fitness, beauty and health, publishing books on the subject and lecturing around the world. She lived in California with her American husband, James Sullivan, whom she had married in 1912, and ran a health store. She even wrote a book of children's stories Fairy Tales of the South Seas (London, 1926). In 1952, Esther Williams starred in a film of her life, Million Dollar Mermaid.

In 1970, Annette returned to Australia with her husband and she died on the Gold Coast on 6 November 1975. Her ashes were scattered close to the Great Barrier Reef. She did much for the promotion of swimming as an acceptable pursuit for women and furthermore emancipated women from the neck-to-knee costume.