KILMARNOCK ASC OLYMPIAN, HELSINKI 1952
The “surface torpedo”, “the snub nosed bullet”, “the flying flea”, “the Scottish shrimp” and “a Scottish bundle of concentrated energy” were only some of the comments used by newspapers throughout Britain to describe without doubt the greatest swimmer and ambassador that Kilmarnock has ever produced.
Margaret was born on the 10th January 1936 in Kilmarnock and was the youngest of 4 children in the McDowall household. Up until the age of 10 years Margaret showed no signs of what was about to happen to her in the sporting field. She enjoyed reading of all things boys books. She won prizes at school for sewing, poetry and temperance but could not swim.
At the age of 8 years Margaret attended the local swimming pool and splashed about for a year. In fact according to George Akers (Pool Superintendent and her eventual Coach) is quoted as saying during an interview for the Sunday Express on the 25th September 1950: “I’ve done everything, Rex but Margaret simply can’t float. When she is on her back she has to keep moving or she’d sink”.
It is true that Margaret was discovered by George Akers during a school swimming gala at the Kilmarnock Pool when she attended the event to watch her sister Jean compete. For some reason, Jean withdrew from her event and persuaded her younger sibling to take her place. Margaret, who had only learned to swim a couple of months earlier, stepped into the breach and the rest as they say is history.
It is that part that I now wish to concentrate on.
Training at that time was a bit of a hit and miss situation. Although very popular, swimming as a serious sport, was in its infancy. Only three strokes were swum at that time in competitive events, namely freestyle, breastroke and backstroke. As we have already learned, George Akers was the Kilmarnock Pool Superintendant and as such took a very keen interest in teaching and developing the coaching of swimming as a competitive sport not only in Kilmarnock but in Scotland. It was through his guidance and the natural ability and determination of Margaret that she reached the heights that she attained. At this time the Kilmarnock pool was state of the art and was being used to great effect to develop swimming in general. However training was always a difficult process. It was not uncommon for Margaret and the rest of the Kilmarnock swimmers at that time to have to swim through the general public during there sessions. Not a very satisfactory state of affairs for any budding sportsman/woman.
However, despite this situation Margaret persevered, training on her own and showing all the dedication and skill that was to lead her to stardom. By the age of 13 years, and having only been swimming for three years, Margaret attended the National Swimming Championships in Derby and finished in a time of 72.2 secs. for 100 yards backstroke. This was 2.2 secs. faster than the winner of the same event the previous year and only 0.3 secs. slower than the British record holder.
She was also crowned the Scottish Western District Ladies Champion for 150 yards backstroke as well as Scottish Junior backstroke Champion as well as finishing runner up in the Scottish Ladies Backstroke 100 yards in a time of 73.0 secs.
On the 13 Aug that same year Margaret was chosen by Scotland to swim in the Bologna Trophy an event which was competed for annually between Scotland, England and Wales and was donated by Mussolini (the Fascist Italian Dictator of Italy) and competed for annually in Swimming. She had now become the youngest ever swimmer to gain full International status anywhere in the World and the youngest to have represented Scotland. In fact her most treasured memory was in this event, which was competed for in Kilmarnock the following year. She helped Scotland retain the trophy in a thrilling competition which saw local spectators “hanging from the rafters”.
In 1950 she won her first of four consecutive ASA Championships at Junior as well as Senior level, becoming the first ever person to achieve such a feat. On returning to Kilmarnock by train she was met by a large crowd who carried her at shoulder height from the station to a waiting taxi and then to a local reception.
Later that year she was to be selected for the first time to represent Great Britain in a Swimming International against Germany. Margaret as well as the GB Team were winners of their respective contests. Margaret defeated the European Silver Medallist, in a time of 76.6 secs despite colliding with her lane rope 6 times and GB won the International by 97 pts to 94. In 1951 she equalled the British Backstroke record for 100 yards Backstroke when she came second to the World Record holder Geertje Wielema of Holland at a swim meet in Ilford, England. Margaret’s time was 1min 8.4 seconds and she was only 15 years of age. She also retained her Junior and Senior backstroke titles in Lancaster and again on returning to her home town was met at the bus station by the Provost, fellow Swimming Club members and a Pipe Band who headed the march to the local swimming pool where a large crowd awaited her.
On being congratulated by the Provost all the shy and embarrassed youngster could say was “Thank you”.
What they did not know at that time was that Margaret was about to become the first swimmer in history to retain her senior backstroke titles for a further two years, an incredible feat. By the time she was 15 years of age she had represented GB and Scotland for a total of three years and had travelled to Germany, Wales and England on International duty. At the tail end of 1951 Margaret was joined by several other Kilmarnock Swimmers at the Helsinki Olympic Trials in Blackpool, England. They were, Violet Bland, Jim Stewart and Grace Morton. Sadly for these three swimmers they all finished as runners up and therefore not selected.
Margaret progressed to the games as one of only two Scots girls in the 30 strong Great Britain Olympic team, something that she had dreamed about since she started swimming all those 5 years ago.
However something that is not known, was that Margaret was not kitted out with the GB official uniform by the Olympic Association, due to lack of funds, but had to rely on donations from local shop keepers with the uniform being made by a local tailor, Gibson and son.
On leaving Kilmarnock for her adventure of a life time on Wednesday the 23 July 1952 she was waved off from the local train station by a huge Kilmarnock crowd. The train made its way to Glasgow where Margaret met other Scottish hopefuls and thereafter journeyed to London to meet up with the rest of the rest of the British Olympic team. On the following day, when they arrived in Hastings, they put in some training which continued over the next few days. On Sunday the 27th July the female members of the team flew out to Helsinki where Margaret was to compete in the 100m Back Stroke on the Tuesday. She negotiated this first hurdle with ease and progressed into the semi finals which were swum off the following day. She qualified in second place for the final in a time of 1min 17.5 secs. On Thursday Margaret swam in the Olympic final but sadly failed to win a medal. However I would like to point out that she was still only a 16 year old schoolgirl. On returning from the Olympics, Margaret continued to dominate the British scene. She even managed a first at the Scottish Championships when she entered the 100 yards Freestyle as well as her Back Stroke events and won that as well. The strange thing in this instance was that she competed in this event as a back stroke swimmer unlike the rest of the swimmers who swam front crawl. This has never been repeated.
Margaret won nine successive Scottish Championships between 1950 and 1958, a remarkable feat. In 1954 Margaret was selected to represent Scotland at the British Empire Games (now known as the Commonwealth Games), in Vancouver, Canada. Margaret failed to win an individual medal. Despite finishing fifth she was only 0.2 secs outside the then back stroke World Record. She did make amends later in the competition when, along with two other Scottish swimmers, namely, Margaret Girvan and Eleanor Gordon they won Gold in the 330 yards medley Team Race beating the favourites, South Africa and England. Their time of 3mins 51secs was a new Games Record.
Margaret, who was now at the ripe old age of 18, returned to Kilmarnock a heroin and was looked up to wherever she went. However this did not faze her and she continued as best she could to train at the level that was required of a great Athlete. She was now only a few months short of the run up to the Melbourne Olympics and had to find more pool time. Due to the lack of good coaches within the west district area and the lack of pool time being made available to her by the then Kilmarnock Town Council she had to travel further afield. It was not uncommon for her to travel to Hamilton and Motherwell as well as Aberdeen to get the required amount of pool time as well as the appropriate coaches.
This through time began to play heavily on the young swimmer who had also become engaged to a local Kilmarnock FC football star, Jim Craig. Despite all her efforts and requests for assistance to her local Town Council she failed to get selected for the forthcoming Olympics. This situation continued over the next two years when, the Scottish Amateur Swimming Association attempted to persuade the Town Council to give Margaret preferential treatment for 5 weeks prior to the Empire Games in Cardiff, Wales. Yet again the Council refused to budge and only decided two weeks before the games to give her 1 hour concession per day with a lane roped off to assist her. As a result Margaret failed to reach her previous heights.
On reaching 22 years of age Margaret decided that she could no longer compete at the level she was used to simply because the Town Council failed to assist her with giving her concessions for her training routine. Stating:-
“I have been compulsory retired by Kilmarnock Town Council”
This situation apparently was rooted as far back as 1950 when due to a misunderstanding Margaret lost her initial 15 min concession and the council refused to reinstate it. “In Motherwell and Aberdeen, (which she used to travel to every Tuesday and weekends) have unlimited facilities for those who want to specialise in competitive swimming. In Kilmarnock there are no such facilities.”
This was something the Margaret did not do completely. Yes, she did stop competing but she then started to put back into swimming what she had taken out of it. Through the next 30 to 40 years Margaret gained her Teaching and Coaching Qualifications in swimming and started to develop courses to assist babies and people with special needs. She was employed by Cunningham and District Council at the Magnum Centre, as well as Kyle and Carrick District. She became a top Tutor and Coach and taught up and coming teachers and coaches and the National Swim School. She also returned to Kilmarnock ASC for a short time in the late 70s where she assisted the club in setting up new teaching courses as well as assisting the then newly appointed Coach, John Stewart.
According to Gary Craig, one of her two sons, his mother’s greatest reward, despite all her competitive success, was the work she did with disabled children. That in itself says a lot about her. There is no doubt that Margaret left a great impression on everyone that she came into contact with. She had a presence about her that all great athletes have. She was always immaculately dressed on the pool side and expected her students to be the same. She spoke with quiet authority and got the job done without fuss.
She was without doubt Kilmarnock’s greatest ever swimmer, athlete and ambassador.