Obituary: Helen Orr “Elenor” Gordon-McKay, Olympic swimmer

Helen Orr 'Elenor' Gordon-McKay: Olympic swimmer was the first Scotswoman to win gold at the Commonwealth Games. Picture: Getty

Helen Orr 'Elenor' Gordon-McKay: Olympic swimmer was the first Scotswoman to win gold at the Commonwealth Games. Picture: Getty

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Born: 10 May, 1933, in Hamilton. Died: 9 July, 2014, in Wishaw, aged 81

Elenor Gordon, arguably Scotland’s greatest female swimmer, has died at the age of 81, following a long battle against ill health.

A triple Olympian, having been selected for the 1948 London Games as a 15-year-old schoolgirl, she was the only British swimmer to win a medal – in controversial circumstances – at the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, then reached a third final, in Melbourne in 1956.

She was also the first Scotswoman in any sport to win a Commonwealth Games gold medal when she won the 220-yards breast-stroke at the 1950 Empire Games, as it then was, in Auckland.

She successfully defended her title four years later in Vancouver. She also won a relay gold in Auckland when, with Margaret McDowell and Margaret Girvan, Scotland triumphed in the 3x110-yards medley relay. Then, with Girvan and Betty Turner, she won a bronze in the same event in Vancouver.

She and endurance athlete Liz McColgan are the only Scotswomen to have successfully defended their Commonwealth Games titles. Only three other Scottish women swimmers, Alison Sheppard in 2002, Caitlin McClatchey in 2006 and Hannah Miley in 2010 have since won Commonwealth Games gold medals.

Swimming was a way of life for Elenor. Her father Gavin was a lifeguard at Hamilton Baths and Elenor, one of his four daughters, was swimming almost as soon as she could walk.

Life was difficult in wartime Hamilton. To help make ends meet, her mother took in the washing of the police officers who lived in the section house, next door to the Gordon’s, and she was, by her own admission, a wee skelf of a lassie when chosen to swim for Great Britain in the 1948 Olympics.

She failed to reach the final in those games, but two years later, in spite of the deprivations of post-war rationing, she was a world-class athlete. The six-week voyage to New Zealand, via the Panama Canal, on the SS Tamaroa, made training difficult. The swimmers had to try to train in a tiny, portable canvas pool, which could be covered with fewer than half a dozen strokes.

Elenor always said this wasn’t convenient, but it helped her turns, and when the Games got under way, she proved her class with that breakthrough individual gold medal, plus the bonus relay medal.

In Helsinki she had to settle for a bronze medal, however. Back then the butterfly stroke had not been recognised and butterfly swimmers competed in the breast-stroke.

Butterfly is definitely a faster stroke and Elenor had to settle for third place behind two Hungarian butterfly swimmers – whom she subsequently beat when she took them on in a strictly breast-stroke event.

Elenor owed her Helsinki bronze to a storming final length, which enabled her to overtake the third Hungarian finalist and deny that country a clean sweep of the medals.

In 1956, by now Mrs Ken McKay, Elenor again went to Australasia to compete in her third Olympics, in Melbourne. Again she reached the final, but had to settle for sixth place. It was her final major games, as marriage, working as a secretary and starting a family took precedence.

Today, swimming at the top flight is the preserve of professional, lottery-funded full-time athletes; in Elenor’s time, it was very much an amateur pastime, and she had to fit her training around her day job.

In retirement, she continued to support her sport, even though she was declared a professional, after refusing to give the Scottish Amateur Swimming Association (SASA) a cut of the £5 fee she received from the BBC for appearing on the television programme on which she announced her retirement.

She later covered her sport for the Daily Express and Evening Citizen for many years.

The ultra-conservative SASA could have treated its greatest woman athlete better.

She was not permitted, for instance, to attend the evening reception to mark the opening of the Royal Commonwealth Pool in Edinburgh, until Sir Peter Heatly, who had, like her, won a gold medal, for diving, in Auckland, sneaked her in to meet the Princess Royal. Ken, her husband of 60 years, was also a fine swimmer, a multiple British and World Masters champion and record-holder, as was Elenor, who set her final World Masters record in 1994, aged 60. She also golfed well into her 70s.

Elenor’s final years were made difficult by a severe degenerative spinal condition, which left Ken as sole carer for his wheelchair-bound wife. She was hoping to be at the forthcoming Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, where she was scheduled to present the medals at her old event, the 200 metres breast-stroke, but illness beat her and she passed away just two weeks before the opening.

Elenor was, deservedly, inaugurated into the Scottish Sports Hall of Fame in 2003.

She is survived by Ken, her sons Colin and Allan and her four grand-daughters.

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