In Search of Mina Wylie

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This thesis examines the life and sporting career of 1912 Olympic swimmer Mina Wylie, who, as a figure, embodied the enormous societal changes with regard to the place of women, brought about by the advent of modernity. It combines a study of Wylie’s life, drawing on the available archival materials, with a shorter creative component inspired by an underlying set of issues concerning competitive swimming, gender, families and memory. Despite being one of the greatest swimmers Australia has ever produced, Wylie is little known today and her place in Australian sporting history is a precarious one. The critical analysis that forms the first part of the thesis is driven by four main questions: 1. Why is Mina Wylie not better known in contemporary culture? 2. Why has Mina Wylie been subject to various processes of forgetting and remembering? 3. What issues concerning women and sport in Australia does Wylie’s career illuminate? 4. What does Wylie’s career tell us about sports history and memory? The resulting inquiry is contextualised within current feminist debates concerning gender and sport and within the shifting discourses of Australian national identity. It explores the challenge that early women swimmers posed to the prevailing ideals of femininity and also investigates how women athletes, such as Wylie, could be understood at a time when the developing discourse of Australia as the ‘Sporting Nation’ was so strongly aligned with the ideals of masculinity. The research also reveals how Wylie’s life story is marked by instances of forgetting and misremembering. This pattern is analysed in order to illuminate how Wylie was refashioned at different moments to symbolise egalitarianism, modernity, chauvinism, the feminist movement, the ‘Aussie Battler’, the fresh-faced and outdoors-loving ‘Australian Girl’ and the forgotten champion. This engagement with the life of Mina Wylie and the world of competitive swimming prompted me to reflect on the relationship between my mother and me, forged through our shared passion for swimming. This is taken up in the creative component of the thesis, in the form of a memoir centred on this bond, which was established through swimming.
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