John Devitt

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John Devitt
John Devitt 1956 Townsville.jpg
John Devitt and Kaye Nottle in 1956
Personal information
Full name John Thomas Devitt
Nationality  Australia
Born (1937-02-04) 4 February 1937 (age 78)
Granville, New South Wales
Height 1.85 m (6 ft 1 in)
Weight 85 kg (187 lb)
Sport Swimming
Stroke(s) Freestyle
Devitt at the 1960 Olympics

John Thomas Devitt, AM[1] (born 4 February 1937) is an Australian former sprint freestyle swimmer of the 1950s and 1960s, who won a gold medal in the 100 m freestyle at the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome. He won in controversial circumstances, being awarded the gold medal despite the timekeepers recording a slower time than the silver medallist Lance Larson of the United States. He also claimed a gold medal at the 1956 Summer Olympics in Melbourne, in the 4×200 m freestyle relay.

Growing up just 250 m from the Granville Olympic Pool, Devitt learnt to swim as part of the government-funded Learn to Swim program. He was educated first at Holy Family Primary School, The Trongate, Granville East, and later at Parramatta Marist High School in Parramatta. Both were Roman Catholic schools, where he also swum competitively for the school team. Devitt was initially trained by Tom Penny at the Clyde Swim Club, based at the Granville Pool, until it disbanded in 1947 and he moved to Manly Swim Club along with Penny. Devitt remains a member of the Swim Club. Penny often allowed his swimmers to train in warm waters by having them swim against the current of discharged water from a power plant. Devitt believed that such training gave him an advantage as it taught him to be unaffected by "rain, heat, currents or any other natural or unnatural variables".

Devitt's first forays into national competition were at the 1952 Australian Championships, where he was continually in the shadow of club-mate Barry Darke, who set five Australian records in their age group. Devitt trailed Darke again at the 1953 championships, but Darke retired afterwards to become a mechanic, leaving Devitt to dominate his age group. However, in the open ranks, he was often beaten by Jon Henricks in the sprint events, and Gary Chapman and Murray Rose in the longer events. Rose and Henricks went on to claim individual gold at the 1956 Summer Olympics. At the age of 18, with Henricks initially sidelined by injury, Devitt was named as the captain of the New South Wales team for the 1955 Australian Championships. However, Henricks recovered and relegated Devitt to silver in the 110yd freestyle. He claimed silver in the 220yd freestyle, behind Rose. Devitt's decision to concentrate on sprinting led to conflict with Penny, and he then left Penny and began self-coaching. After beginning to regress, Devitt considered retirement, until he joined Sam Herford at the Spit Baths alongside Murray Rose.

At the 1956 Australian Championships, Devitt finished third in the 110yd behind Henricks and Chapman, and fifth in the 220yd behind Chapman to gain Olympic selection. After a ten-week national training camp at the Tobruk Pool in Townsville, Queensland, Devitt was named as the national captain for the 1956 Summer Olympics in Melbourne. Devitt's first event was the 100 m freestyle, where he won his heat and then his semi-final to qualify in second place for the final, where he matched Henricks for the first 80 m, before Henricks surged to claim gold. Chapman completed an Australian sweep by finishing third. For the 4×200 m freestyle relay, Devitt had clocked the fourth fastest time at the Australian Championships. After swimming the fastest leg in the heats of the relay, he was selected along with Rose, Henricks and Kevin O'Halloran for the final. The Australians won the gold medal in a world record time, with Devitt clocking the fastest leg in the whole race.

In January 1957, Devitt set a world record in both the 100 m and 110yd freestyle, and lowered the 100 m freestyle world record to 54.6s later that month at the Queensland Championships. He then won his first individual Australian title in the 110yd freestyle. With Henricks and Rose swimming and studying in the United States, Devitt became the dominant Australian freestyler, and decided to continue his career until the 1960 Summer Olympics, supporting himself as a health inspector for the Townsville City Council. In 1958, after claiming the Australian 110yd title, he claimed three golds at the 1958 British Empire and Commonwealth Games in Cardiff in the 110yd freestyle, and the 4×110yd freestyle and medley relays. In 1959, Devitt again lowered the 110yd freestyle, but was later defeated at the Australian Championships by John Konrads, who won every freestyle title from the 110yd to 1650yd events.

In 1960 Devitt reclaimed his 110yd Australian title, and at the pre-1960 Summer Olympics camp in Townsville, broke the 4×100yd freestyle relay along with Henricks, Geoff Shipton and David Dickson. At the 110yd freestyle trial, he came third behind Henricks and Shipton, and was controversially selected as the second Australian representative, by selectors who ignored Shipton. He also finished fifth in the 220yd freestyle and was initially left out of the 4×200 m freestyle relay team. Devitt was again named the national captain.

On arrival in Rome, Henricks was forced to withdraw from competition after falling ill. Devitt held a solid lead until the last 10 m when Larson surged and both appeared to have touched the wall together. Of the three judges who determined the first-place winner, two awarded Devitt as the winner. However, of the three judges assigned to allocate the second-place winner, two believed Devitt to have come second. Moreover, the three timekeepers assigned to the contest all believed Larson had won, giving times of 55.0s, 55.1s and 55.1s, while awarding three 55.2s for Devitt. Nevertheless, the chief judge overruled the timekeepers, setting Devitt and Larson's times to 55.2s each and allocating the gold to Devitt on the evidence of the first-place judges. Multiple protests by the Americans continued for several years, to no avail. Devitt also competed in the 4×200 m freestyle with Rose, Konrads and Dickson, winning a bronze medal.

Upon returning to Australia, Devitt retired and began working for Speedo. He rose from a salesman to become the European manager, and later, manager of the International section. In 1979, he combined with Terry Gathercole to begin their own aquatic equipment firm. In the 1980s, he became an Olympic administrator, serving on the Australian Olympic Committee executive. He was involved in Sydney's winning bid for the 2000 Summer Olympics and was the Australian team manager for the 2006 Commonwealth Games.

Devitt was inducted into the Sport Australia Hall of Fame in 1986,[2] made a Member of the Order of Australia in 1989,[1] and received an Australian Sports Medal in 2000.[3]


  1. ^ a b "Devitt, John Thomas, AM". It's an Honour. Retrieved 14 September 2013. 
  2. ^ "John Devitt AM". Sport Australia Hall of Fame. Retrieved 14 September 2013. 
  3. ^ "Devitt, John Thomas: Australian Sports Medal". It's an Honour. Retrieved 14 September 2013.