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Whitfield, Beverley Joy (Bev) (1954–1996)

by Ian Hanson

from Australian

Beverley Whitfield. Gold medallist 200m breaststroke, bronze medallist 100m breaststroke at the Munich Olympics, 1972. Born Shellharbour, NSW, 1954. Died Wollongong, August 20, aged 42.

When the chips were down you could count on Bev Whitfield being there to help cheer you up, to recall the good times, to talk about swimming and the Olympic Games.

Whitfield was, in every sense of the word, a battler. A kid brought up in the school of hard knocks and a woman who went back to that school until the day she died. She never complained, no matter how tough she was doing it, and spread the Olympic spirit whenever and wherever she could.

Whitfield enjoyed a happy childhood on the NSW south coast, despite the death of her mother when she was very young. By the time she was 10, Whitfield knew in her heart she had what it took to become an Olympic breaststroke champion. Former Olympic silver medallist Terry Gathercole also recognised her talent and agreed to coach her.

Most weekends, Whitfield travelled to Sydney to work with Gathercole and he steered her towards the 1970 Commonwealth Games after she followed him to Texas to train.

"I remember the joy and the smile on her face on her 15th birthday, which she celebrated with us in Texas," says Gathercole. "[It was] the same smile which greeted the world when she touched the wall after winning that gold medal in 1972."

Whitfield competed in a golden era of Australian swimming — sharing her triumph at the Munich Olympics with Shane Gould and Gail Neall. All three won gold medals amid the tragedy of the massacre of nine Israeli athletes. But while Gould was fancied to win her events, Whitfield and Neall were the unfashionable Aussies.

Whitfield finished second to 1964 Olympic champion Galina Stepanova in her heat of the 200m breaststroke and in the final all eyes were on the veteran.

But Australian coach Don Talbot had instilled in Whitfield that she must be patient and wait until the "back half" of her race before making her move.

At the end of the first 50m, Whitfield was in last place, but moved up to third at the end of the second lap.

As they turned for the final lap, Whitfield was fourth — behind Stepanova, American Dana Schoenfield and Hungarian Agnes Kiss-Kaczander, who had smashed the Olympic record in her heat.

But 20m from home, Whitfield made her move and went on to win in a thrilling finish. Only a second separated the first four placegetters and Whitfield clocked a new Olympic record time of 2 minutes, 41.71 seconds.

She was the toast of the Australian team and she later told Gary Lester in Australians at the Olympics just how much it hurt.

"I said to myself, 'This is it baby, let's go' and I didn't care how much it hurt, I just kept telling myself to go for it." She said it was her plan to stay calm and come home with a blistering finish.

She yelled to her Australian teammates: "For once I kept my cool, this is the greatest feeling in the world."

In recent years, Whitfield worked with juvenile offenders at the Keelong Detention Centre at Unanderra, near Wollongong, always spreading the Olympic spirit to youngsters under her care.

Only last week she visited her old school, Shellharbour Primary, to show off her Olympic medals.

Great memories for the kids of Shellharbour, memories of a woman with a heart of gold to match her Olympic triumphs.

Original publication

Other Obituaries for Beverley Joy (Bev) Whitfield

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Ian Hanson, 'Whitfield, Beverley Joy (Bev) (1954–1996)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/whitfield-beverley-joy-bev-31608/text39878, accessed 4 July 2022.

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