Olympic Champion Kevin Berry (1945-2006)
December 7, 2006
- Olympic champion swimmer Kevin Berry died after a fall at a nursing home in Sydney on December 7, 2006. He was 61.
Berry won the 200 meters but
terfly at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and broke 10 world records in his career. He also bagged three titles at the 1962 Commonwealth Games in Perth.
"Kevin was not only an Olympic champion and world record holder but a great human being who earned the respect of all who competed against him and those who came to know him,'' Glenn Tasker, Swimming Australia's chief executive, said. "His love of swimming and the Olympics was legendary.''
Berry was converted to butterfly from breaststroke by renowned coached Don Talbot, who spotted him as an 11-year-old. During 1964, Berry worked as a gas station attendant and washed dishes for a steakhouse in the run-up to the Tokyo Games. On one occasion, the Australian team held a reception at the steakhouse where he cleaned up while also being one of the guests.
"Kevin was also an awesome team man who was a pleasure to coach,'' Talbot said in the statement. "He was one tough cookie.''
One of Kevin Berry’s most memorable experiences was in 1960, when he was only 15 and in Rome to compete in his first Olympic Games. And he did his country proud, finishing sixth in the final of the 200 metres butterfly. What more could a kid from Marrickville ask for: compete for his country, make an Olympic final and soak up the history and splendour of the Eternal City?
But there was more to come. As one of only four Catholic men on the Australian swimming team, Kevin was invited for a private audience with the Pontiff.
Pope John told them: “I’m the fisher of men, but I can’t swim.”
Kevin recalled: “The four of us then invited him to come to Australia so we could teach him to swim. “As a Catholic, it was a moving experience meeting the Pope. It was a privilege to meet him and it’s still so vivid in my thoughts 42 years on.”
“I remember in 1960, at the height of the Cold War, there was a great feeling between the East and the West in the Olympic Village,” he recalled. “I saw Americans dancing with Russian athletes … that’s what the Olympics is all about. It’s a brotherhood and I’m proud to be a part of the huge Olympic family.”
Four years later, with an Olympic final under his belt, Kevin went to the Tokyo Olympics determined to win gold in the 200 metres butterfly. And he did, in style, to join the elite band of Australian sportsmen and women who have won an individual Olympic Gold medal.
He says he turned to his faith to cope with the pressure of the Games. “My faith was very important as it gave me great comfort before any swim race,” he recalls.
“Prayer was something I relied on in my preparation, and I believe it was a contributing factor to my success. There’s a tremendous amount of pressure at Olympic Games level, but my faith allowed me to cope and gave me an edge over my opponents.”
The final in Tokyo was still fresh in his mind years after the event. He was one of only two competitors who had previously been in a final, so he tried to psyche out his less experienced opponents.
“I intentionally made a false start which seemed to unnerve the other swimmers,” he says. “It was legal to do that in those days, and I could sense the tension and pressure building in my opponents.
“It was only after I received the gold medal on the dais that it sank in that I was an Olympic champion. I can’t put it into words to describe how I felt.”
Swimming can be a lonely sport. Doing laps for hour upon hour tests you both mentally and physically.
“To cope with the boredom of training, I would sing songs to myself and think about my whole life in general,” he says. “It brought me closer to myself and it helped me think through my personal relationships and my relationship with God.”
Under the guidance of head coach Don Talbot, Kevin thrived on those challenges to become one of Australia’s greatest swimmers. He says the gruelling training schedules gave him a chance to reflect on his life and faith.
His swimming career was one of achievement: Olympic champion 200 metres butterfly, Tokyo 1964; triple Commonwealth Games gold medallist, Perth 1962; holder of 12 individual world records between 1961 and 1968; inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame, 1980.
Berry retired from swimming in 1967 and pursued a career in journalism. He authored books including "2000 Things You Did Not Know About the Olympic Games,'' worked as pictorial editor at the Sydney Morning Herald and served as ABC's head of sport from 1985 until 1987. He was also keenly sought after as a motivational speaker.