In the same week as two age group records belonging to American swimming legend Sippy Woodhead turn 40, Australia has an anniversary of their own to celebrate.
That is the country’s National Age Record for 15-year old girls in the 400 free, which was set by Tracey Wickham at the same 1978 World Championships where Woodhead’s feats etched themselves into history (and, given the age of the marks, etched has never felt as a more appropriate phrasing).
The fates of Wickham and Woodhead are in stunning parallel. While Wickham was a few months older than Woodhead and favored the 800 over the 200, the two were frequent competitors in the late 70s and early 80s. While Woodhead won gold and set the World Record in 1978 in the 200 free, Wickham did the same in the 400 (with Woodhead 2nd). Wickham also won the 800 free, in a Championship Record, and beat Woodhead again – this time by 5 seconds.
Woodhead would own her World Record in the 200 free, lowering it twice more, until May of 1984, when East Germany’s Kristin Otto took it away. The record was held by East Germans for 3 years before Woodhead set it and by East Germans (and later united Germans) for 28 years after it was broken, most under a cloud of suspicion as to German state-sponsored doping activities.
Wickham would never again go faster than that swim she did at 15 in 1978, and she held her record for almost a decade, until American Janet Evans broke it in 1987.
In spite of their tremendous success in the interim period, largely-political matters blocked both Wickham and Woodhead from ever matching that success on the Olympic stage. The Americans didn’t race at the 1980 Olympics during the infamous boycott, and by 1984, Woodhead won just 1 silver medal in the 200 free when she was 22 – as compared to the 5 medals (3 gold, 3 silver) she took at the 1978 World Championships at just 14 years old.
While Australia did race at the 1980 Olympics, under the Olympic flag in partial solidarity with the boycott, but a number of Australian athlete independently withdrew. Wickham was one of the group that withdrew, but she maintains that it was because of a battle with glandular fever, not because of the boycott.
She wound up retiring at the end of 1979 because of the Amateur Swimming Union of Australia’s insistence on upholding a policy of amateurism led her to retire to seek more financial stability. She came back to win 2 golds at the 1982 Commonwealth Games, but then immediately retired again, having only competed at one Olympic Games, in 1976, when she was only 13, and earned no medals.
Two of Wickham’s records turn 40 this month. The 800 free aged-up on August 5th, from a race swum in Edmonton 3 weeks before the World Championships. The 400 free turns 40 on Friday, which is the same day as Woodhead’s 400 free does. Those are the two oldest Australian Age Records on the books.
Both set of records stand as a testament and a crucial reminder of two of the great female swimmers of their generation, neither of whom achieved a count of Olympic medals that correlates to the level of their performances for reasons largely outside of their control.