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The story of Irene Steer

Swimming, Diving, Artistic Swimming , Water Polo, Education
National, Performance

When Irene Steer first started swimming in Roath lake at the age of eight, no one could have predicted she would blaze a trail for Welsh female swimmers on the world stage.

Born in 1889, the working-class daughter of a draper and a housewife, Steer progressed from humble beginnings to break new ground for female swimmers across the country. Despite only standing at 5ft 2in, she was a titan of the sport who went on to become Wales’ first female world record holder and first Olympic gold medallist.

Steer was a true pioneer of the sport as she became one of the first women to win gold at the Olympic games. Women had only been allowed to compete from the 1900 Games in Paris, while swimming made its debut as a female sport 12 years later in Sweden.

She made history in emphatic fashion when she struck gold in Stockholm in 1912 as the anchor leg swimmer in the victorious, world record breaking British 4 x 100 yards freestyle relay team. They won by a stunning 12 yards. It would be 96 years before another Welsh woman struck gold at the Olympics when Nicole Cook won the women’s cycling road race in Beijing on 10 August, 2008 – coincidentally Steer’s birthday.

"We were crowned with laurel wreaths and they played the national anthem, they hoisted the Union Jack and we winners had to just parade all around the pool, which was rather embarrassing!" Steer said in an interview in 1976, aged 86, shortly before her death the following year.

Having started life as a breaststroke swimmer with Cardiff Ladies Premier Swimming Club, Steer converted to freestyle and adopted the ‘Australian crawl’ style. She was one of six British women selected for the Olympic Games, but suffered in the individual event when she was involved in a collision with another swimmer in the semi-finals and was disqualified – despite there being no lane ropes in the open air pool to separate athletes.

The Games in Stockholm were the first in which women took part in swimming. Steer was one of only 50 women at the 1912 games out of 2,500 competitors.

She became the first Welsh swimmer to be awarded a Welsh Swimming Association certificate for breaking 100 second for 100 yards in 1907. She won the Welsh 100 yards title for seven years in a row from 1907 until she retired in 1913. In 1910 she also became the first Welsh woman to win an English national when she equalled the world record for 100 yards freestyle (1 min, 13 3/5ths sec) at Weston Super Mare. She had been the runner-up in the two previous years. Steer married Cardiff City director and chairman Captain William Nicholson in 1915.