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Saturday June 6, 2009

Olympic swimmer graduated at top of her class

Canadian record breaker competed when there were no women's coaches

smartin@globeandmail.com

Canada's oldest Olympian, Betty Edwards Tancock, was born when Sir Wilfrid Laurier was Prime Minister. She lived through two world wars, space travel and many other firsts including the inaugural British Empire Games, where she won a silver medal for Canada in swimming.

There was little if any training for female athletes when she was a university and then an internationally ranked swimmer, coming fourth in the women's relay at the 1932 Olympic Games in Los Angeles. Indeed, swimming was one of the few sports in which women were allowed to compete in those days.

The elder of two children of Percival (Percy) Edwards, a chartered accountant, and his wife Hazel, Betty grew up in Toronto, where her father was a senior partner in the family accounting firm. She went to Brown Public School and then Oakwood Collegiate.

Although she attended publicly funded schools, she did enjoy swimming lessons and summer camp, among other opportunities afforded affluent middle class families in the mid-1920s.

Her father bought her a "juvenile" membership to The Granite Club, which had opened a new building nearby on St. Clair Avenue in 1925, and she was soon swimming there four or five times a week. At 16 she entered her first Canadian championship meet, coming third in the quarter-mile freestyle race, breaking the previous record time in the process.

Betty spent her summers at Camp Tanamakoon, first as a camper and then as a counsellor in the fledgling years of that venerable all girls camp's existence.

After high school, she went to the University of Toronto, graduating at the top of her class in 1933 with an honours degree in Home Economics, the Sarah Kennedy Scholarship and an eight month postgraduate internship in the diet kitchen at the Hospital for Sick Children.

All the while she was swimming competitively. In the seven years from the time she entered her first big race at 16, she won one gold Canadian championship medal (for ornamental swimming - a precursor to synchronized swimming) and 19 silver and bronze ones, five gold Ontario championships, 11 silver and five bronze medals.

That sounds like quite a haul, but she claimed in an unpublished autobiographical essay that her trophies were few in number because "most of my career fell within Depression days and often ribbons (or nothing at all) would be awarded at swim meets."

Although there were no coaches for women swimmers and no intercollegiate swimming competitions, she was a member of the University College swim team, winning two individual championships in interfaculty meets at Hart House - the men-only rule was temporarily lifted.

As well, she served as president of the Women's Swim Club, a member of the Women's Athletic Directorate, and won a Special Senior T for athletic prowess in 1932, recognizing her as a Varsity athlete. Decades later she was incorporated into the U. of T. Sports Hall of Fame and the Ontario Swimming Hall of Fame.

When she was in second year, she broke Canadian records for 1,000 yards and the mile during the trials in July, 1930, for the inaugural British Empire Games (now the Commonwealth Games) that were held that August in Hamilton, Ont.

The games were spartan as far as facilities went - the athletes' village consisted of the high school nearest the Civic Stadium; competitors slept two dozen to a classroom. Nevertheless, some 400 athletes from 11 countries participated in six sports.

Women were only allowed to compete in swimming. Ms. Edwards, along with Irene Pirie, Marjorie Linton and Peggy Bailey, won a silver medal in the four by 100 freestyle relay, behind the British team.

Two years later, she swam in qualifying events in Toronto and Vancouver to earn a spot on the Canadian Olympic team at the 10th Olympic Games in Los Angeles.

Money was tight in 1932, especially for Canadian athletes, so after raising a portion of their own travel funds, Ms. Edwards and the rest of the Olympic swim team boarded a bus in Vancouver and headed south for what she later remembered was a "long hot ride."

At the end of the journey, they were billeted in a small hotel. Rather than enjoying the spoils of the City of Angels, they behaved like good Canadians and avoided social events in order to remain well rested, or so she told the U. of T. Magazine in 1996.

"We knew from the beginning we weren't going to place very high," against the British, Dutch and American teams, she said. "We had the feeling it was up to us to train hard and do our best." In the end they almost won a medal in the freestyle relay, coming fourth, with Ms. Edwards swimming anchor.

She competed in her final international event at the British Empire Games in London in 1934. This meet had been scheduled for Johannesburg, but the venue was changed after protests, especially from Canada, about potential discrimination against black and Asian athletes in South Africa. These games were also noteworthy for the fact that women were allowed to compete for the first time in some track and field events.

By now Ms. Edwards, who had graduated from university, was seeking a job, which was almost as rare in 1934 as an Olympic medal. She took a position as a receptionist and laboratory technician in a medical/dental clinic, earning $5.50 a week. After upgrading her office skills by learning how to type and take shorthand at Dominion Business College, she was hired by Brazilian Traction Light and Power (later Brascan) and worked for the next three years in the firm's offices on the 20th floor of what was then Toronto's tallest building, the Bank of Commerce on King Street West.

In 1942, she married Brian Tancock, a chartered accountant, and spent the next few decades as a wife and mother of two children - Brian, who was born in 1943, and Beverley, in 1945.

By the early 1960s, her children were grown, and Mrs. Tancock went back to work as a secretary in the department of philosophy at York University's Glendon College. For most of the next two decades she had increasing administrative responsibilities until she finally retired at age 69 in 1980.

That left her more time for volunteer work, researching and writing historical articles, especially about her own family who were prominent early settlers in Alliston, Ont. And, of course, swimming. The funeral is today at the Turner and Porter Yorke Chapel in Toronto.

Elizabeth (Betty) Tancock was born on Feb. 22, 1911 in Toronto. She died on May 28, 2009. She was 98, and leaves her son Brian, her daughter Beverley, and three grandchildren.

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