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Konrads, John (1942–2021)

by Alan Howe

from Australian

The day Janis Konrads was born in Riga, the capital of Latvia, the world was at war with its winners and losers yet to be determined. The Germans and Russians treated the Baltic States as nations to be traded and controlled and by agreement Latvia became part of Russia’s sphere of influence. By 1944 the Konrads family was in Germany and seeking to emigrate. In 1949 Janis Snr and Elza Konrads applied to move to the US with son Janis (soon to go by the name John), a grandmother, an elder sister Eve and a younger sister Ilsa.

America didn’t want such big families, but Australia, in the first flush of its “populate or perish” post-war panic offered the Konrads a refuge and the family moved to NSW, first a migrant camp near Maitland and soon after to another at Uranquinty, a wartime RAAF base. Janis Snr saw the creeks, rivers and dams around the town and decided his children would have to learn to swim. Just in case. John’s mild bout of polio only strengthened his father’s resolve.

Janis Snr was a dentist and found work and a home in Sydney’s Bankstown. The Konrads were sent to nearby Revesby Primary School. One of its teachers was a young Don Talbot, whose English mother had organised swimming lessons for him after the boy almost drowned. Talbot would teach the Konrads, his first superstars of the pool, and go on to be arguably the world’s most acclaimed swim coach, directing the national teams of Australia, Canada, the US as well as being the first director of the Australian Institute of Sport (he died on the Gold Coast last November).

Soon John and Isla were making extraordinary progress as Talbot revolutionised swim coaching, including filming the pair under water to iron out smooth turns and any poor hand and foot movements. The pair cycled to school for a two-hour training session each morning and returned for more coaching after the school bell sounded.

The longstanding idea that swimmers were best not being “overworked” was abandoned. The training moved to weights, callisthenics and never-ending laps.

As the Konrads Kids they started to break records, first for their school, then NSW, and soon after set national records. Aged just 14, John was selected as a reserve for the 1956 Olympics swim team, but was not called upon.

At the NSW championships a little over a year later — John was already national junior champ for the 220 yards and 440 yards events — he sets six world records. Isla also broke world records. They held eight between them, the first time family members had concurrently held world records. John added to his world records in the following weeks, breaking another eight and at one point held the record for every nationally recognised distance. “Even in slow motion he’s fast,” a newsreel made then breathlessly confirmed. He would go on to break 26 world records.

John and Isla were celebrated with a civic reception in the main street of Bankstown whose shops were closed for the occasion and Australian Film and Sound Archive footage shows the locals 10-deep waving to their heroes, both of them by now with robust Australian accents.

At the trials in Melbourne’s Olympic Games pool later in the year, John won the mile race, breaking four world records throughout, winning by “more than 100 yards” taking more than 30 seconds off the clock. This was in preparation for the Cardiff Empire Game to be held in July 1958.

There he struck gold for the first time winning the 440-yard and 1650-yard individual events and joined the 4x220-yard team to nab a third gold medal. Ilsa set records for three of her freestyle events at the same games.

At Rome’s 1960 Olympic Games John won the 1500m freestyle, claimed a bronze in the 400m freestyle, and another as part of the 4x200m freestyle relay team. Isla won a silver medal.

The following year he went to study marketing at the University of Southern California, where, after years of early starts and the grinding disciplines physical training, he was sidetracked by beer and girls and his performances fell away. He scraped into 1964’s Tokyo Games’ team.

Thirty-six years ago last week, 21 of Konrads’ prized Olympic and Empire Games’ medals were stolen from his Melbourne home and remained missing for 24 years before turning up on eBay. A woman in Geelong, Victoria, had bought “a shoebox” of medals from a bric-a-brac sale in Queensland 10 years earlier for $200 unaware of their provenance.

Konrads worked as a coach and was successful in corporate life working for L’Oreal. He bumped into Ansett boss Sir Peter Abeles at LA International Airport in the late 1980s and Abeles hired him to a marketing role at the airline. John also helped with the (then secret) campaign to bring the Formula 1 Grand Prix to Melbourne, “stealing” it from Adelaide, and was appointed to the board of the Black Dog Institute. It was there that Professor Gordon Parker saw what he believed were signs of depression. He told John to make an appointment to see him and eventually John received a diagnosis of bipolar.

He described dealing with it as the greatest challenge of his life and spent the rest of it raising awareness of the condition.

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Citation details

Alan Howe, 'Konrads, John (1942–2021)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/konrads-john-31767/text39228, accessed 3 October 2022.

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