The only Kiwi woman to win an Olympic medal in swimming, Jean Hurring, has passed away in her 90th year. She was gentle and generous, teaching countless New Zealanders how to swim – but had a formidable, determined streak. 

Jean Hurring will be remembered as a kind, gentle and humble woman and a quiet pioneer of New Zealand swimming.

But she also possessed a steely determination and was a “force of nature” when she wanted to achieve something.

Yes, there was the 1952 Helsinki Olympics, when Jean Stewart was seventh at the turn in her 100m backstroke final, but made a spectacular burst to snatch the bronze medal in a photo finish.

Or when, desperate to get training time in Helsinki, she swam naked in an indoor swimming hall where costumes were banned – backstroking  up and down the pool only to look up and see a gallery of fully-clothed spectators staring down at her.  

But there was also the time, in her mid 20s, she snuck out the window of her parents’ home in Dunedin in the middle of the night, caught a boat to the United States, and eloped with the love of her life – fellow Olympic swimmer Lincoln Hurring.

Their children, Kim and Gary Hurring, say their mum had an impact on so many lives – including the thousands of Auckland kids she taught how to swim.  

Jean Hurring died in Auckland at the weekend, aged 89. A bouquet of flowers arrived at Kim’s home this week from the woman who beat Jean Stewart for the gold medal 68 years ago – South African Joan Harrison. “She was a lovely lady,” the card read.

After all those years, she remains the only New Zealand woman to win an Olympic medal in the pool. Others like Anna Simcic and Lauren Boyle have made it to Olympic finals, but never climbed onto the podium.

When she won her bronze medal in Helsinki, Stewart admitted she had been “very much influenced” by her friend and New Zealand team-mate, Dame Yvette Corlett – then Yvette Williams – who became the first Kiwi woman to win Olympic gold with her incredible leap in the long jump just a week before.

Stewart and Williams had gone to the same schools in Dunedin, and as the only women in the team, they shared a room in the nurse’s hostel turned women’s Olympic quarters. Neither was allowed to take a coach, but they had to travel with a chaperone.

Stewart was one of the first people to run onto the Olympiastadion track and hug Williams when she won.

“Yvette turned her slight nervousness into an intense excitement, and I tried to do that too. It’s a matter of being eager to go, not just frightened,” Stewart told a journalist when she arrived home.

Of New Zealand’s three medals in Helsinki, Stewart brought back two. Williams had stayed on after the Games, so Stewart was entrusted to bring the gold medal home to Williams’ mother in Dunedin. (The third medal was won by John Holland in the 400m hurdles).

Yvette Williams and Jean Stewart with 1920s NZ Olympian Sir Arthur Porritt in London before the Helsinki Games. Photo: Getty Images. 

Born in Dunedin in 1930, Stewart came from a family of swimmers. Her mother, Mary, was the first woman to swim for Otago at a national championship, and her two sisters were junior national champions. A reluctant swimmer at first – her sisters had to throw her into the pool – she got serious while at Otago Girls’ High, and trained in the local tepid baths at lunchtime.

Her coach, Bill Wallace, was more enthusiast than swimming expert, Stewart said in a New Zealand Olympic profile. “He knew about horse racing, so he trained me like a horse. I did what is now known as interval training, though it was fairly rudimentary.”

When Stewart was selected for the 1952 Olympics, she was in her third year of training to become an art teacher (she was an avid painter throughout her life, especially landscapes). Among the close friends she made there was Ralph Hotere, later recognised as one of New Zealand’s most important artists.

In the New Zealand Olympic team of 14, the three from Dunedin – Williams, Stewart and Hurring – had all gone to Dunedin North Intermediate. Hurring and Stewart were recognised as pioneers in their sport – the first swimmers to put in long hours of training in the pool. 

Although they were the first New Zealand team to fly to an Olympic Games, it still took them a month to get there – making at least 10 pit stops along the way.

Once in Finland, Stewart and Hurring found it difficult to get training time, so they would go to the Olympic pool at 5am. They figured out a routine – not stopping at the ends of the pool but taking a breather in the middle – so officials couldn’t toss them out. And Stewart swam at the famous Yrjönkatu swimming hall, where costumes weren’t permitted until 2001.

Stewart was the fourth-fastest qualifier for the 100m backstroke final, but she was determined to at least win bronze. She made a slow start in the medal race, but with a gutsy effort over the last 50m, she finished behind Harrison and the Dutch world record-holder Geertje Wielema.

There was controversy, though, as Stewart touched the wall at the same time as another Dutch swimmer, Johanna de Korte. Judges deliberated and then confirmed the New Zealander had won the bronze.

After her swim, Stewart stayed at the pool to watch Hurring race. He’d just been discharged from hospital to swim in the men’s 100m backstroke semis, after falling ill with tonsillitis. He ended up 14th and didn’t progress to the final.

Stewart loved her first Olympic experience. “If the world could live in the same friendly spirit as the Olympic athletes did in Helsinki, there would never be a war,” she told reporters when she arrived home to a heroes’ welcome with Hurring.

At that point, Hurring and Stewart were still friends. They both won medals at the 1954 Vancouver Empire Games – Stewart collecting her second Empire Games bronze – and then went to the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, where neither made a final.

Stewart then retired, but first went on tour visiting swimming clubs around the country with Hurring. Despite swimming in “cold and dirty pools”, it was where they fell in love, daughter Kim says.

In 1957, Hurring got a scholarship to swim at the University of Iowa, and studied towards an economics degree. He embraced the student life and was swimming great times.  

It was then Stewart decided to join him in the United States – and elope.  

They returned to Auckland in 1960 and raised two children. Hurring tried a desk job, and then school teaching, but it was when the couple decided to open their own swim school, they found their niche.  “Mum and Dad taught thousands of Auckland kids how to swim,” Kim says.

Lincoln and Jean Hurring taught thousands of Aucklanders to swim. Photo: Hurring family collection. 

Naturally the Hurring children were water babies, but Gary – who won gold at the 1978 Commonwealth Games and a world championship silver – recalls the quirky story of how he learned to swim.

“Lincoln, who was quite inventive, pumped up a tractor tyre inner tube and put a bottom on it. He threw us two kids in with some toys, and let us float around the pool while he and Mum taught,” Gary says.

One day, a three-year-old Gary jumped out of the tube and somehow swam to the side of the pool. “I hadn’t had any lessons, but I must have learned by just watching them every day,” he says.

When Gary went on to race around the world (including two finals at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics) Lincoln would travel as his coach, but Jean would stay at home. “She’d be up at 3am to watch me swim on TV. I’d ring her, and she would cry down the phone.”

She loved fishing and she drove a VW kombi van – once driving 13-year-old Gary to a swim meet in Pukekohe, where he set a national record, then on to Whangamata so he could surf with his mates. “She was amazing,” he says.

Lincoln Hurring died in 1993; in recent years, Jean had dementia. “It robbed her of her past; the last two years she didn’t know she was a swimmer,” Kim Hurring says.

But others certainly remember.

Kereyn Smith, CEO of the New Zealand Olympic Committee, says it wasn’t until recent times that she came to fully appreciate just how much Stewart, Olympian #74, had done for swimming in New Zealand.

“She was quite a quiet achiever,” she says. “I met her a few times and I remember her as a really lovely woman. That era of athletes like Jean and Yvette continued to give their sporting knowledge and expertise for a lifetime – Jean through teaching so many kids to swim.”

Dave Gerrard, a fellow Olympian swimmer and now president of Swimming NZ, this week wrote: “Despite several New Zealand women making Olympic swimming finals, there has not been another medal at that level of competition for our country. Jean has remained an inspiration to all female athletes, but swimmers in particular.

“Jean Hurring’s swimming legacy is immeasurable. Her standing as an Olympic medallist and her contribution to water safety, teaching countless children to swim stamps Jean as one of our finest.

“Okioki i runga i te Rangimarie [Rest in peace].”

Suzanne McFadden, the 2021 Voyager Media Awards Sports Journalist of the Year, founded LockerRoom, dedicated to women's sport.

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