Biography

Malcolm Champion Born 1883 

There has been surprisingly little written about Auckland swimmer Malcolm Champion, even though he was the first New Zealander to win an Olympic gold medal.

The aptly-named Champion won his gold medal at the 1912 Stockholm Olympics, when he was aged 28, as part of the Australasian 4 x 200m freestyle relay team. That was the last Olympics at which Australia and New Zealand competed as a combined team. 

Champion was born in 1883 on Norfolk Island, where his father, Walter, was a sea captain who traded around the Pacific. Malcolm's mother was a Quintal, a descendant of the Bounty mutineer, Matthew Quintal.

The Champion family moved to Auckland in 1897, by which time Malcolm, the oldest son, was serving on his father's ship. As a teenager, Malcolm was a talented artist.   Though he was tall and powerful and was a strong swimmer, it took him a while to adapt to competitive swimming. He had done all his swimming in lagoons and in the open sea and had to learn the arts of starting and turning. 

His first national championship was at Christchurch in 1901, when he caused a sensation by cleaning up every freestyle title from 100 yards to the mile. 

Champion's career, however, was nearly over just after it began. He was suspended for life in 1902 for professionalism - a heinous crime in those days - and it wasn't until 1907 when the newly-formed Waitemata club campaigned vigorously on his behalf, that he was reinstated. 

At the 1908 nationals, held on Napier's Westshore in open water, Champion won the 100, 220, 440, 880 yards and mile. His closest rival was Wellingtonian Bernard Freyberg, later to become a famous New Zealand solider and our Governor-General from 1946-52. 

In all, Champion won New Zealand titles over 100 yards (five times), 220 yards (seven), 440 yards (seven), the half-mile (six) and the mile (six). He reduced the national 100 yards record from 1min 09.8s to 1min 01s, and was the only New Zealander of his era to even approach the magic one-minute barrier. Some of his records lasted several decades.

He was sent overseas with New Zealand teams four times, twice to Australia, to the Festival of the Empire in 1911 (held to commemorate the coronation of George V), and, of course, to the Olympics in Stockholm the following year. 

In England in 1911 he won three races, including the English five-mile championship on the Thames. He lost a mile race, but won twice over 880 yards. 

His great year, of course, was 1912. Again he made a clean sweep of the national freestyle titles, earning selection in the Australasian Olympic team. 

Champion was the Australasian team’s flag-bearer during the Olympic opening ceremony. 

He competed in the 400m, 1500m and relay at Stockholm. In his 400m heat, he finished second to Australian swim king Harold Hardwick. This put the New Zealander into the semi-finals, where he was drawn against two Australians, Hardwick and Cecil Healy, Bela von Las Torres of Hungary and the British swimmer, Taylor. Champion finished fourth and just missed making the final. 

In the 1500m, he swam comfortably in his heat and his second placing (behind Las Torres) qualified him for the final. The five finalists were George Hodgson, the 18-year-old Canadian who had already won the 400m, Jack Hatfield of Britain, Hardwick, Champion and Las Torres. The New Zealander found the early pace too torrid and retired after 800 metres, as did the Hungarian. 

In the relay, Champion teamed with Australians Hardwick, Healy and Les Boardman. The quartet won their heat from Germany in the fastest qualifying time and lined up in the final against the United States, Britain, Germany and Hungary. 

Healy led off with a leg of 2min 31.4s, and touched level with the American, McGillivray. Champion swam right up to his best to clock 2min 33.5s and send Boardman away with a 10-metre advantage. Boardman swam 2min 35s and Hardwick was then left with the task of holding off the great Hawaiian swimmer Duke Kahanamoku, who had earlier won the 100m. 

Kahanamoku drew level with Hardwick at the halfway mark, but the Australian’s stamina told and he pulled away. 

The Australasian team won by eight seconds in 10min 11.6s, which was listed as a world record. Champion was 28, and until 2008 the oldest swimmer to represent New Zealand at an Olympics. After the Olympics, Champion toured Europe with the Australasian team, swimming in Gothenburg, Kiel, Stockholm, Berlin and Paris. 

Champion continued to dominate the New Zealand swimming scene for the next six years. At his last national champs, in Blenheim, in 1914, he again swept all five freestyle titles. 

By the time he pulled out of competitive swimming, at the age of 31, he had won 31 national titles, which still puts him high on the list of most national titles won. His figure is all the more amazing considering he missed his peak years through disqualification, and that in his time there wasn't the range of strokes available to contest. 

After his retirement, Champion was for many years the genial custodian of Auckland's Tepid Baths, where the walls of his office were brightened with his sketches of ships. During the years he lived on the North Shore, he frequently swam home from work across the Waitemata Harbour. 

He involved himself heavily in coaching. His first pupil was Eric Patterson, who became the first New Zealander to swim 100 yards in under a minute. Later Champion coached national champions such as Noel Crump, Bob Frankham, Edna Rainey, Sylvia Grange, Judith Webster and Jim Magee. His daughter, Edna, was also a leading swimmer. 

Champion, who was an instructor at the Mount Eden and North Shore clubs, always stressed breathing and leg action for balance and arm action for speed, and encouraged his swimmers to carry their bodies as high as possible in the water. 

Champion was inducted into the New Zealand Sports Hall of Fame in 1990.

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