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She was one of the great Olympic champions, the only swimmer to
win the same event--the 100-meter freestyle--in three
consecutive Olympics (1956, '60 and '64), but Australia's Dawn
Fraser was equally well known for making waves out of the water.
She came to competitive swimming relatively late in her youth
and won her last Olympic gold at 27, an age considered doddering
in a sport in which careers barely survive pubescence. And
though she trained diligently enough when the mood seized her,
she was no ascetic. Asked what was next on her agenda after she
became, on Oct. 27, 1962, the first woman to break the 60-second
barrier in the 100 free, Fraser glibly replied, "Oh, go to a
party. Have a beer. Probably get tight."

In fact, she pretty much drank and ate whatever she wanted,
proudly proclaiming herself "the best beer drinker in
Australia." Such pronouncements did not endear her to the
swimming establishment, but Fraser was always and above all else
her own woman. "One of the reasons I've lasted so long as I
have," she once explained, "is that I have not let the sport
change my life. I let myself go once in a while."

Letting herself go sometimes led to trouble. During the 1960
Rome Games she was chastened for, among other offenses, refusing
to wear the official Australian warmup suit when accepting her
gold medal, smacking a teammate with a pillow during an argument
and rejecting a plea to swim an unscheduled relay lap because
she had just finished lunch. At the 1964 Tokyo Games she refused
to wear the official team swimsuit because she said it didn't
fit, marched in the opening ceremonies after team officials
instructed her to rest for her event the next day and, finally,
snitched a souvenir flag from a display in front of the Imperial
Palace. The theft, little more than a prank, was the final straw
for the Australian Swimming Union, which ordered her suspended
from all competition for 10 years. The suspension was lifted
inside four years, but Fraser, who had married, given birth to a
daughter and divorced in the meantime, had retired by then.

She was born in the Sydney suburb of Balmain, the youngest of
eight children. No more than a recreational swimmer until her
mid-teens, she was discovered at a public pool by swimming coach
Harry Gallagher. She quit school at 15 to help support her
family and to train with Gallagher. Four years later she won her
first gold medal, setting an Olympic record of 1:02.0 at the
1956 Melbourne Games. She lowered that mark to 1:01.2, then a
world record, in Rome. Two years later she cracked the 60-second
barrier, and then, at the Australian national championships on
Feb. 29, 1964, she shattered it, swimming the 100 in a world
record 58.9 seconds.

Eight days later her career nearly came to a tragic close.
Driving home from a party (at which she said she had not drunk)
with her mother, her sister and a friend in her car, she was
unable to avoid a truck parked on a highway near the Sydney
airport. The collision killed her mother and left Dawn with a
chipped vertebra in her neck. Despondent and with her back in a
steel brace for two months, she virtually abandoned any thought
of ever swimming again. But she recovered physically, and with
the help of her family and a psychiatrist friend, she emerged
from her depression. Then on Oct. 13, 1964, Fraser pulled off
the unprecedented feat of winning her third straight Olympic
gold in the 100 free, successfully staving off a finishing rush
by a 15-year-old American, Sharon Stouder, to set yet another
Games record, of 59.5. Since then the women's 100 free, a race
that will be held tonight at the Georgia Tech Aquatic Center,
has not been won by an Australian.

Even after she retired from competitive swimming, Fraser did not
abandon her sport or the Olympic movement, with which to this
day she remains actively involved. She coached young swimmers
for years and served on the committee that secured the 2000
Summer Games for Sydney. And for one so impolitic during her
athletic career, she surprised friends and fans alike by being
elected in 1990 to the parliament of her home state, New South
Wales. But then, as she once remarked in her competitive days,
"Maybe I can't be told what to do, but I can be asked."

B/W PHOTO: ALLSPORT In three straight Olympics, the irrepressible Fraser was unbeatable in the 100 free. [Dawn Fraser]