Passages: Helsinki gold medallist John Davies passes away peacefully in Pasadena, aged 90

Ironically it was a judge who overrode the time-keepers to deny Sydney boy John Davies of an Olympic bronze medal in the 200m breaststroke at the 1948 Games in London.

Davies first won a NSW swimming championship in 1946 at the old Manly Baths – destroyed by the storms of 1974 – and was discovered and mentored by the legendary coach Forbes Carlile after winning the Australian Championship in Adelaide in 1947.

Davies was part of the original “guinea pigs” of Australia’s genius sports scientist Professor Frank Cotton, under Carlile’s swimming spell.

Between them the combination of Carlile and Cotton weaved their magic to produce Australia’s first Olympic swimming gold medallist since Clare Dennis in Los Angeles in 1932, when Davies came back from London to win the gold at the 1952 Helsinki Games.

The Olympic family on both sides of the Pacific are mourning the loss of US Federal Court Judge John Griffith Davies who passed away peacefully in Pasadena, California on March 25 with his wife Marnie and his children Jack and Ann by his side. He was 90.

A man with special talents both in the Olympic swimming world and in the court room, where he ruled supreme.

Helsinki was sweet revenge for the boy who was born in Willoughby on May 17, 1929 but like so many youngsters on the north shore gravitated to the ocean Baths that dotted Sydney Harbour – from his local Northbridge, across Sydney Harbour to the Domain, and around to baths at The Spit, Balmoral and Manly.


Memorable Moment: John Davies (centre) flanked by silver medallist Bowen Stassforth (USA) and Herbert Klein (GER) at Helsinki 1952. Photo Courtesy – International Swimming Hall of Fame

Carlile took Davies under his wing in 1947, training the determined, single-minded Olympian in his star-studded squad at the Palm Beach on the northern end of the Northern Beaches peninsula.

But at his first Games in London, Davies looked a certain bronze medallist when time-keepers recorded a time two tenths of a second faster than the US swimmer Robert Sohl.

Judges, sitting on tiered sets of chairs, picked the first, second and third placegetters –placing Davies fourth behind a US sweep of Joseph Verdeur (2:39.3), Keith Carter (2:40.2), with Sohl third (2;43.9)

Official placings still have Davies (2:43.7) swimming a faster time than Sohl, who has the bronze medal.

“It’s never bothered me that much – but it’s still a topical point,” Davies told respected Sydney sports writer Margie McDonald in a 1993 interview.

“I went to the 40th reunion of the University of Michigan swimmers and Bobby Sohl was in attendance….there’s still people talking about it.”

After London, Davies had travelled to the US to join the Michigan swim team under legendary US coach Matt Mann – studying a four-year degree in political science and after Helsinki returned to the US and studied Law, taking out American citizenship and becoming a highly respected Federal Court Judge.

But it was Helsinki that Davies created his own special slice of Olympic history, trained by Mann but carrying out Carlile’s “even paced” strategy, the cool, calm and collected Sydneysider swam the perfect race.

Davies was in fact the last of the “butterfly breaststrokers” – who perfected the butterfly arms (as we know it today) with breaststroke kick – under Carlile, with Cotton looking over his shoulder.

He set a new Olympic record of 2:34.4 to beat American Bowen Stassforth (2:34.7) and Herbert Klein (2:35.9) – a record that still stands today – as the event was divided into traditional breaststroke and butterfly added for the next Games in Melbourne in 1956.

Carlile had also convinced Davies that the only way to win in Helsinki was to clock “even splits” and although he trailed Klein at the 100m mark, Carlile’s instructions “Always sit back, hang back – then in the last lap, you go….”.worked for Davies” who had avenged the controversial fourth place, four years earlier.

“Of course, I planned it that way, I knew what was going to happen even before that race. That sounds rather conceited , doesn’t it but I just went in the way Forbes called it – it was even-lapped swimming or something like that…and it worked,” Davies told McDonald.


John Davies – Photo Courtesy: International Hall of Fame

Cotton had attended the Helsinki Games as a scientific advisor to the Swim Team and said later: “ Davies’ judgement was uncanny…I’ve never seen any athlete show more constraint in swimming the type of race he thinks he can win. He did not panic and he was only ever half-a-second out on any of his planned lap times.”

Away from sport and in his professional life, John Davies was an accomplished student and the only Olympic Gold Medallist to become a Federal Judge.

And in 1993 was named District Judge of the Year by the Criminal Justice Section of the Los Angeles County Bar Association

He was known as ‘the Judge who saved L.A.’ after presiding over the Trial of the Los Angeles Police Department officers who were charged with assaulting Rodney King in 1992 and in 1993 was named District Judge of the Year by the Criminal Justice Section of the Los Angeles County Bar Association.

He also received the Congressional Certificate of Special Recognition of Exemplary Performance and the Daniel O’Connell Award from the Irish American Bar Association before retiring from the bench in 1998.

His sporting achievements also continued to be recognised, when he was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame in 1984 and the Sport Australia Hall of Fame in 1992. He also received an Australian Sports Medal in 2000.

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