Nan Rae: Scotland’s original water babe

Nan Rae with some of her medals and trophies. Picture: Michal Wachucik/Newsline Media
Nan Rae with some of her medals and trophies. Picture: Michal Wachucik/Newsline Media
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NAN Rae was the original water babe. By the time she was 18 months old she was swimming in her local baths in Motherwell better than she could walk.

A few years later she was taking part in swimming galas all over Scotland and winning national schools and junior titles. By the age of 14 she had won her first British international honours, represented Scotland in the Empire Games and won a bronze medal for Britain in the European Championships. By the age of 16 she had featured in an Olympic final in Rome. And by the age of 18 she had retired.

When she won that bronze medal over 400 metres at the 1958 European Swimming Championships in Budapest, her delighted coach celebrated the moment with her exclaiming repeatedly “You’re faster than Johnny Weissmuller!” That was a reference to the Hollywood screen icon synonomous with the role of Tarzan who had begun his climb to celebrity as Olympic swimming gold medallist at 400 metres in 1924. The coach was David Crabbe, an inspirational coach with a success-laden CV, who was a key figure in Nan’s success. “Winning that bronze was great,” she recalls. “I was not expected to be on the podium but swam really well and it was a great thrill for a 14-year-old. But for me the real high point of my career was taking part in an Olympic final, that was the pinnacle.”

Swimming dominated the lives of Nan and her four siblings as they grew up in a close working-class family in Motherwell. The hub of their existence and of many other families was the local swimming baths. They were at the centre of community life, provided lots of fun and enjoyment and were cheap.

“I was taken there as a baby and from then on I was hooked. Our lives revolved round the baths,” she said. The swimming galas and water polo matches there were special occasions.Teams from Europe came to compete and were hosted by local families. Rae remembers as a youngster her house echoing to French, Dutch and Scandinavian voices. So popular were these events that long queues used to snake round the block when tickets went on sale and at times there was even a black market for tickets. By the time Rae’s serious swimming career began to blossom in the late 1950s, Motherwell had produced a conveyor belt of swimming talent – seven Olympians in the 1948 London Olympics including water polo champions like Nancy Riach and Cathie Gibson, multiple world-record holder Jack Wardrop and his twin brother Bert, a World Student Games champion, to name only a few.

The man responsible for all this success was David Crabbe. A one-time steelworker, he was an acrobat and professional diver with the nickname of ‘Daredevil Davie’ before his appointment as Bathsmaster in Motherwell in 1935. “He was a smashing guy, a complete enthusiast who lived for swimming,” said Rae. “He cajoled, encouraged and inspired you to make the most of your ability. If you committed to him he gave of his very best in return and the number of champions he produced is testament to his abilities. Although hard work was his mantra, he also made it fun and the atmosphere was always good. He was a disciple of the ethos of the great Czech runner Emil Zatopek for whom self sacrifice and dedication were bywords. Illustrating this approach, Crabbe had the word ‘PAIN’ painted in large black letters on a wall at one end of the pool.”

As her career developed, Rae began training twice a day, both evening sessions. Crabbe began to enthuse over her, stating: “I’ve never seen anyone so young capable of giving such all-round performance in the water.” Demands were made on her schooling but her headmaster at Dalzell High School, Mr Scobie, was very accommodating, giving her time off provided she worked hard when at school. With international recognition, came trips to London and staying in hotels.

She says: “It was all very exciting and not what I was used to at all but as a child you just get on with it. My dad used to put me on the London train at Motherwell and ask the guard to keep an eye on me.” Trips abroad soon followed with her first one involving flying to Munich for a match against West Germany shortly after the Manchester United air disaster.

Her first international championships were the Empire Games in Cardiff in 1958 where she secured a creditable fifth, proud to be representing Scotland there. It was one of very few opportunities to do so as usually it was Britain in internationals. Although I didn’t medal, I did have the satisfaction of setting a new British record.” Budapest followed and that bronze medal. She recalls: “One of the things that stuck in my mind about Budapest was the number of ruined and damaged buildings, as this was only two years after the 1956 Uprising.And women in overalls were working on construction sites repairing these buildings,something none of us had ever seen before”.

By the following year, Nan held every Scottish record from 100 yards to the mile and the British record for 440 yards. From then on, her focus was on making it to the Olympics in Rome in 1960. To qualify for the team she had to finish in the first two at the qualifiers in Blackpool which she succeeded in doing to book her place in the team at 400metres. “It was all terribly exciting.We had to go to London to get measured for our kit and uniform and again we were put up in a hotel that seemed the lap of luxury.”

In the lead up to the Olympics she also undertook a morning training session between 8 and 8.45 which was followed by “a run to school for the start of classes.” This paid off as by the time of the Olympics she had never felt fitter. “I was walking on my toes and felt as if I was bursting out my skin, I was so fit. It was a great feeling.”

Everything about the Olympics was “wonderful”, she recalls. “The Olympic village was just amazing. So many different nationalities, so much colour and everyone so friendly. The variety of food was amazing and there was even a nightclub where you could learn to jive!”

The legendary Australian swimmer Dawn Fraser, a formidable physical presence, was in Nan’s heat. Nan stood just over five feet tall, weighed about eight stones and was dwarfed by Fraser who engaged in a spot of ‘sledging’ by asking Rae “if she was sure she could swim 400ms?’’ After, when Nan had run her very close, she was gracious enough to remark, “By God, you CAN swim 400 metres!”

For Rae, the Olympic final was the biggest swimming show on earth. Before the final I can remember feeling pretty nervous but I never let nerves get the better of me.The tension increased as each swimmer’s name was announced as they stepped up to their blocks-at that time the Olympics was the only place where that happened. It all seemed fairly daunting, after all I was only 16. But I kept it together and felt I swam well to finish sixth. Maybe my relative lack of experience led to me going off too fast at the beginning.”

Had she repeated her time in the heat when she set a new British record she would have won the bronze medal but it was not to be. But nothing could detract from the thrill of that Olympic final. The next year she won three Scottish and two British titles and began her studies at PE College in Aberdeen. She continued her swimming training there at first but the demands of her course, allied to her desire to have a life outside swimming, led to her retiring aged 18 in 1962. A contemporary press report said: “She was the youngest veteran from Motherwell Baths ever to achieve fame”.

And she did achieve fame. Once, a letter addressed to ‘Nan Rae, Scotland’, found its way to her letter box. And her love affair with water was not at an end. After qualifying as a PE teacher, she married Alan and spent the next three years at sea with him as “the captain’s wife.”

Still happily married and the mother of two adult sons and proud grandmother of two young grandsons, Nan now lives near Aberdeen. She still enjoys the occasional ‘dip’ and looks as though she could give Hannah Miley a run for her money.