A four-time world record holder by the age of 17, Philippa Gould remains New Zealand’s only long-course swimming world record holder. She tells David Leggat why she retired still a teen.
Picture this: you’re 16, sitting in class, head down in the books, when the door opens and in comes another teacher.
Miss Beale, the St Cuthbert’s games mistress, focuses her attention on you.
“And she says: ‘I’d just like to let you know, Philippa Gould, you have been ratified with these world swimming records’,” recalls Gould the swimmer, who at 79, is still fit and sharp, and now known as Pip Gower.
A photographer from the long defunct Auckland Star is there as well, and his photos of the schoolgirl at her desk appear in the daily paper.
And her classmates? “Oh they cheered,” Gower says. “I think they were so excited.’’
And then? “It was back to the lesson. Get the mind back on it.”
Imagine that happening now.
Back then, world records had to be sent off to world swimming’s governing body, Fina, based in Europe.
So it took a few months before word got back to Auckland that the times Gould had set for both the 200 metre and the 220 yard distance in backstroke had, indeed, been the world’s fastest times, recorded in one swim in the Newmarket Pool in June 1957.
Gould was delivered similar news when, nine months later, she set new world times in the 100m and 110y backstroke at the same venue — and she still hadn’t reached 18.
Top of the world, with the 1958 Cardiff Empire Games just around the corner.
And then, in what now seems a flash of time, it was all over; retired at just 17 after bringing home bronze from Cardiff. It had been a remarkable, albeit short, career.
Gower remains New Zealand’s only long-course swimming world champion – which 62 years on, tells you plenty about both New Zealand swimming, but also how good the Auckland teenager was. (Lauren Boyle set a world short-course record – in a 25m pool – in the 1500m freestyle in Wellington in 2014).
There is much about Gower’s career which leaves you shaking your head in the course of her verbal trip down memory lane.
“I had a sister Beverley, three years older, who swam. We went to have lessons together and it grew from there,”she remembers.
She inherited sporting genes from both her mum, Joy, who played tennis to a good standard, and dad, Lindsay, a competitive runner.
“I just loved it,” she says of swimming. “It wasn’t a problem to do the training. My sister was good at freestyle and she was chosen to go to the 1954 New Zealand championships.
“Our coach, Jack Lyons, who was the manager of the Olympic pool, said to Mum, ‘Why not put Pip in the backstroke, because she can’t beat her sister?’” She won two backstroke titles and her swimming career began in earnest.
A year later, with the 1956 Melbourne Olympics beckoning, the young tyro went and beat Jean Stewart, not only the national titleholder, but a celebrated athlete in her own right. Stewart was the first – and still only – New Zealand female Olympic swimming medallist (in Helsinki in 1952).
“That got me to the Games I think,” Gower says.
Training arrangements were unrecognisable back then. “In those days the Olympic pool was terribly popular after school. We had to wait until 5 when the kids went home, then we’d train,” she says.
“In winter we only had the tepid baths and they were ghastly. You could go twice a day, but it was only 33 and a third yards, salt water and hot.
“Nothing was easy, but we didn’t know any better. So you just did it, lived with what you could.”
The Melbourne Olympics was an eye-opener for the girl who’d never left New Zealand.
“You got over there, and all the women were in a compound, a big wire netting thing, with a guard on the gate,” says Gower, who was just 15, and one of four women in the New Zealand swim team. Still, she got to have lunch with the Duke of Edinburgh.
“I wasn’t used to people not talking to you before a race. It was tough and I wasn’t up to that. I basically failed.’’
She swam just one race, her heat in the 100m backstroke, finishing sixth. Nerves had got the better of the teenager.
“But as soon as I got back, I broke the world record, so there you go,” she says.
Gower clocked 2m 39.9s for the 220 yards. As that was the longer distance (220 yards equals 201.1m) she also set a new world time for the 200m.
In March the following year, Gower repeated the double achievement, recording 1m 12.5s for the 110 yards – and broke the 100m at the same time.
But in between those world records, she had broken a leg, leapfrogging over a pommel horse in the school gym.
After leaving school at 17, Gower was bound for the Cardiff Empire Games. But again, all didn’t bode well.
“The plane broke down in Kolkata. We were there 48 hours and I got a tummy bug, like a lot of the others,” she says. “I finished up in hospital for two or three days in Cardiff. When you were meant to be at your peak, it wasn’t too hot. But never mind, that was that.’’
She finished third in the 100m backstroke. People had speculated she would win gold.
“But that’s typical of sport. You’re at your peak and something like that happens. That’s life,” she says.
So was she already switching her thoughts to the 1960 Rome Olympics – when she would have been 19 and probably at her peak? No.
“With my parents, I’d more or less decided I’d retire. I was sick of backstroke and if I was going to keep going, I’d do butterfly,” she says. “But then I decided I’d retire. Get out while on top.
“I just thought there’s more in life. I’ve got to get out and get a job or do something. Once I’d made my decision that was it, finish.”
And no regrets to this day either. “There’s something about hanging in too long – you can become an oldie and a has-been.”
She’d been to two Games, and won what is now the Halberg Supreme Award in 1957.
Gower went to work in the office of a medical lab. She started playing golf and tennis, and got married at 21. Three children and eight grandchildren later…
You won’t hear her bemoan her misfortunes during her short career. After all, there were terrific highs too, followed by a full, active life, which included an induction into the New Zealand Sports Hall of Fame in 1995.
A few years ago, Gower was persuaded to enter the Auckland Harbour swim by her grand-daughter Amber and daughter Sally.
“Come on, you can do it,” she was told. And she completed it twice – but “never again,” she adds with a laugh.
In 2017, she was nudged to enter the World Masters Games in Auckland, and came away with two silvers in the 50m and 200m backstroke, and a gold in the 100m. “I’m not doing that again either,” she chuckles.
Gower taught swimming for around 20 years; her pupils aged from four to 12.
Teach, mind you – not coach. She didn’t want to train swimmers, but teaching the basics mattered.
Still nimble and agile – as she demonstrated hopping onto a desk to reach up and pluck from her rich collection of memorabilia on a top shelf at her home in Parnell – she retains a sharp mind and doesn’t dwell on the ‘what might have beens’ in her swimming career.
Her weeks are busy, what with golf, swimming, bridge and book club. She has packed plenty into her life.
“I think if you’re organised, it’s not hard,” she says. “People who aren’t organised, they muddle.’’
Then almost unconsciously, she drops into ‘young swimmer mode’ again. “You know you’ve got to do the training, then go home and do your homework, then get up next morning and do whatever.’’
Just a hunch here: The teenager who rocked the swimming world 65 years ago was never a muddler.