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EDITION 18 - JUNE 2008
Scottish Olympic Legends
We continue our countdown this month with Scotland's greatest ever swimmer, David Wilkie

Edging ever closer to Beijing, we’re now down to number 3 in our list of Scotland’s all time great Olympians.   And streaking in with one gold and two silver medals is Scotland’s David Wilkie...

Wilkie, born in 1954 in Sri Lanka, is and always has been a fiercely proud Scot.  But his story of Olympic glory is one that is very much an American Tale, which eventually became an American Dream.

Wilkie’s father worked in the tea industry, and he spent the first  eleven years of his life in Asia.  But they were critical times in hindsight, as his exposure to warmer climes allowed him to swim almost daily from an early age, either in the pool or in the sea.

“My life and my sister’s life revolved around swimming,” said Wilkie, speaking exclusively to In The Winning Zone. “She was a very good swimmer and she could have participated in a higher level had she chosen. We would spend most of our time in the Colombo swimming club, and across the wall was the beach, so the environment was excellent.

“We swam nearly every single day. I was in the water from a very, very young age. My father was the club captain and he was keen that we took part in the swimming galas. I was competing from the age of eight, although we never did any training.”

By the time he moved to Edinburgh to attend High School (enrolling and boarding at Daniel Stewart’s College) he was already a very talented swimmer.  But it was at these early stages in his career that it first became apparent to the young Wilkie that to succeed at the very top, talent wasn’t enough. 

For lack of a better term, Wilkie ‘messed around’ as a youngster, and didn’t take his swimming as seriously as a fellow with his gifts should have perhaps been expected to.  As he said himself of life back in Colombo, he had never ‘trained’ very much, even though he spent every day in the pool.  It was a massive culture shock.

“It was so different from the tropical lifestyle in Colombo. Sri Lanka was very relaxed,” he recalled. “It was a Mañana attitude – everything would be done tomorrow. Yet if someone wanted to become an Olympic champion or represent Scotland they would have to swim four hours a day. I would say ‘Forget it’. It was something I could not physically do but when I came to boarding school at 11, my whole perspective changed.”

He joined Warrender Park Swimming Club, but found the going tough.

“It was awful. Warrender wasn’t the best pool for training Olympic hopefuls. The lane ropes were pieces of strong nylon dividing the lanes. There were about 20 swimmers in this freezing cold pool. It was rough as hell and the chlorine was harsh. In those days we didn’t wear goggles, so our eyes were stinging.”

Wilkie swiftly decided competitive swimming wasn’t up his street.  It has lost its fun since he came to Scotland – thanks in no small part to the inhospitable weather.  Thankfully Frank Thomas, his coach, was able to see Wilkie’s potential, and encouraged him to stick at it.

 “I have been very fortunate in my life to have met people who have stood by me. Frank Thomas was a swimmer himself – he didn’t represent Scotland, but he was a businessman and he ran a very successful surveying business in Edinburgh. He was a good man in the sense that he knew how to motivate people.”

It wasn’t too long before Wilkie’s true competitive spirit started to shine through, however.  Having been given a stay of execution – in this case from the club’s books – young David embarked upon a specialised training programme that would show if he could ‘sink or swim’ at the top level.  He went on to win some galas, then some more, and by 16 he was competing for Scotland, and, amazingly, found himself racing at the Olympic Games in 1972, aged just 18.  It was a massive achievement in a career that appeared non-existent just a few years earlier. 

Wilkie was ranked 25th in the world at the 200m breast-stroke when he arrived at the Munich Games. He wasn’t expected to do much. Then he made the final as the second fastest qualifier. “Bells should have started ringing somewhere. They were certainly ringing in my head!” he recalled. 

He went on to win a silver medal in the event, losing out against the man who would become his greatest rival, John Hencken.  The American had beaten Wilkie by over 2 seconds that day in Munich, but life was about to take a dramatic turn for the newly acclaimed Scottish swimmer.

His performances at the games in Germany hadn’t just set tongues wagging at home – those who judged him as a waster and a no-hoper were eating their words – but he had also ignited a few debates across the pond, in the USA.

He received interest from several esteemed universities, offering him scholarships to develop his swimming and academic skills at their establishments.  He was even courted by Harvard, the most prestigious of all the American institutions.  But it didn’t take him long to make up his mind.

He chose the University of Miami. It was like returning to Sri Lanka; with the sunshine and the palm-trees. “Harvard had Don Gamble, one of the world’s best swimming coaches in the world. But it was in Boston in the north – nice in summer but freezing in the winter. I chose Miami. I had everything, including a 50 metre outdoor pool. Everything was delivered on a platter.”
The regime was 7 until 9 every morning, then 2 until 4 in the afternoon, including Saturdays. Sunday was a day off, but it was expected that the swimmers undertake some exercise activity. The training would be very physically hard, up to 20,000 metres a day – which is 400 lengths of a 50 metre pool.

He trained hard in Florida, and his battle with Hencken was revisited again and again in various meets over the years.  In that time Wilkie had won the World 200m breaststroke title in 1973, before breaking the world record and regaining the title in 1975.  He also picked up two golds and one silver at the Commonwealth Games in Christchurch in 1974, and added the European title to his collection.

Then the big one came round again – the Olympic Games, this time being held in Montreal, Canada, in 1976.  Wilkie had revenge on his mind after losing out to Hencken in Germany four years earlier.  They were both in contention for gold medals, in both the 100m and 200m breast-stroke events. 

According to the British Olympic coach Dave Haller, Hencken was always more likely to be stronger over 100m, as his rapid arm movements were more suited to a sprint race, while Wilkie's longer, more rhythmic strokes meant he was fancied over the longer distance.

As it turned out, it was honours even for the pair. Hencken, as expected, triumphed in the shorter race, squeezing Wilkie into second, earning the Scot his second Olympic silver medal. 

But in the 200m, as the race edged towards the last of four laps in the 50m pool, there was only going to be one winner.  Side by side in lanes three and four, Hencken led for the first 100m.  Wilkie, with his now legendary white cap, goggles and moustache combo, (he was the first swimmer to wear a cap and goggle together in competitive racing) realised it was do-or-die time in his quest for a gold.

In the remaining 100m, his stamina and power came through.  He took the lead towards the end of lap 3, and coasted to victory in the final length, winning by more than two seconds, cementing his place his history as a Scottish Olympic Legend.

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