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Paulo Radmilovic – Early years in Cardiff to Olympic stardom

Categories
Swimming, Diving, Artistic Swimming , Water Polo, Education
Levels
National, Performance
Region
International

Paulo Radmilovic reigns supreme as Wales’ greatest Olympian. In the first instalment of his story, we look back at his humble beginnings in Cardiff through to his maiden Olympic triumphs in 1908.

For 80 years, Paulo Radmilovic was Britain’s most decorated Olympian, until Sir Steve Redgrave clinched a fifth gold medal at 2000 Games in Sydney.

Radmilovic was born in Cardiff on 5 March 1886 to a Croatian immigrant father and Welsh mother. His father Antun, born in Dubrovnik, had moved to Wales in the 1860s but his mother was born in a Cardiff native, the daughter of Irish immigrants. The couple were pub landlords, of the Glastonbury Arms and the Bute Dock Tavern both on Bute Street.

Radmilovic would take to Cardiff’s canals, many of which are now covered by the bars and shops of streets such as Mill Lane. A natural swimmer and water polo player, he also won an incredible 19 Amateur Swimming Association titles over a range of distances, from the 100yd freestyle sprint in the pool to five-mile open water races.

"I started swimming when I was quite a young boy, perhaps at the age of five," said Radmilovic who later became known as 'the Shark Man of the Taff'.

"But I couldn't swim because I tried to swim in the Cardiff canals before the Corporation Baths were built and I nearly drowned twice!

"They pulled me out of the canal and my father said, 'well now they've built the new Corporation Baths, put the child in the bath and let him learn to swim'.

"Then when I went on a few years I started to enter competition and won everything I went in for. I won the Junior Welsh Championships and at the age of 14 I represented Wales as an international swimmer... that was my first [senior] international."

But it was in London in 1908 when he made his mark on the global stage. At his home games, ‘Raddy’ starred in the men’s water polo team which defeated Belgium 9–2 in the final, netting twice. But he had to put his celebrations on hold when he got a late call-up into the 4×200 metre relay squad when another swimmer withdrew due to illness and swam the second leg of a dramatic race. Hungary appeared to be cruising to victory when anchor leg swimmer Zoltán Halmay began to lose consciousness in the water. Halmay struggled to the finish but Henry Taylor had touched four seconds earlier to give the British victory. Radmilovic also competed in three individual freestyle events but failed to make a final.

Stay tuned for more stories about the history of Swim Wales and the most important figures in our history.