Sporting Bygones: How fear of swallowing a moth almost cost Lonsbrough her chance to claim gold in Rome

BOXING, tick; cycling, ditto; but swimming?

Team GB were certainly lacking in the pool this year but there was no doubting the star of Rome 1960 – Huddersfield’s 200m swimmer Anita Lonsbrough.

Lonsbrough – a Treasurer’s Office clerk employed at Huddersfield Town Hall – was one of only two GB gold medallists at the 1960 Olympics, the other being Don Thompson in the 50km walk.

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But it was Huddersfield’s world record-breaking Lonsbrough who was regarded as the golden girl of the Games and, indeed, her swimming achievements remained unmatched until 2008.

After Lonsbrough tasted glory in 1960’s 200m breaststroke final, her country had to wait 48 years before another British woman celebrated an Olympic gold – Rebecca Adlington in the 2008 Games in Beijing.

Hopes were high, of course, that Adlington could repeat her triumph in London this year but, alas, the Mansfield athlete found new American teen star Katie Ledecy too hot to handle.

But it was a teenage Lonsbrough who proved a class apart in Rome with the Yorkshire star not just supremely talented but also impressively relaxed.

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Lonsbrough already held the official 200m breaststroke world record approaching the Rome Games but there is more to winning a gold than speed and talent.

Not that there were any negatives whatsoever regarding composure with the Yorkshire Post’s Olympic correspondent, Chris Brasher, reporting: “I do not believe there could have been anyone more calm than Anita Lonsbrough.”

It was reported that ‘the only time she got a flutter in her stomach was in the afternoon when Elizabeth Ferris won the bronze medal in the women’s three-metre springboard diving.

“Then I felt it here,” revealed Lonsbrough, apparently pointing to her stomach.

“I thought ‘I’ve got to be on the top step’.”

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Brasher then reported how Lonsbrough’s last few hours of preparation for that night’s final involved laying on her bed for an hour or two in the village followed by a supper of “orange juice, steak and chips and grapes at 6pm.”

After another lie down, three hours and 25 minutes later, at 9.25pm it was showtime and by this point the only worry on Lonsbrough’s mind was a rogue insect – a moth.

Brasher reported Lonsbrough as saying: “There was a moth flying round and round on top of the water just where I would have to dive in. I was scared stiff that I would swallow it.”

Whether it was coincidence or not, Lonsbrough made a poor start in the final with Brasher reporting how the fourth-placed Huddersfield ace was eight feet behind German swimmer Wiltrud Urselmann after the first length.

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Lonsbrough quickly moved into second by the halfway stage but Brasher was clearly not expecting a gold at this stage, revealing that “at the halfway mark, there was still seven feet between the two.”

But an astonishing third leg saw Lonsbrough overhaul the German before holding out on leg four for a magnificent victory and a new world record of 2mins 50secs.

Lonsbrough certainly chose exactly the right time for the occasion to get the better of her, in her post-swim victory speech.

“I don’t know what to say, I can hardly speak,” Brasher reported the Yorkshire star as saying.

She then added: “I hope I haven’t let anyone at home down.”

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Hardly, and the teenager received a hero’s welcome upon her return to England in first the capital and then back up north in Scarborough to join her father, Stanley Lonsbrough, at the home of family friends.

The teenage star’s mother, Maud Lonsbrough, at this point was still in Rome.

But within 60 seconds of Lonsbrough’s tremendous victory, the Mayor of Huddersfield, Norman Day, had promised the Yorkshire star a civic reception on her return to her home in St Peter’s Street and this was duly delivered.

Lonsbrough had been born in York and grew up in India where her father was a soldier and while it was in India where she learned to swim, Huddersfield was her home.

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Her achievement was all the more remarkable given that the she only took up swimming aged 16 at Huddersfield Amateur Swimming Club.

The Yorkshire Post also reported how “the man who first put her on the road to fame did not live to see her greatest hour”.

That gentleman was Harry Chambers, the swimming club’s chief instructor at Cambridge Road Baths.

Rome was indeed Lonsbrough’s finest moment and one that has only been equalled by Adlington.

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Not that Lonsbrough was any one-hit wonder with her career taking in seven gold medals of varying kinds and five world records before her retirement in 1964.

Lonsbrough also became the first female to win the BBC Sports Personality of the Year award in 1962 and the following year the Huddersfield star was awarded an MBE for services to swimming.

Twenty years later, Lonsbrough was introduced to the International Swimming Hall of Fame and even today she remains heavily involved in sport.

Lonsbrough turned 71 on Friday and is now a sports commentator and former journalist for the Daily Telegraph under the name Anita Lonsbrough-Porter, having married GB cycling star Hugh Porter in 1965.

The couple live in Wolverhampton with Porter a commentator on both cycling and swimming – the 72-year-old playing a key part in the coverage of the London 2012 Games which ended yesterday.