As you swim south around the back of Wedding Cake Island off Coogee Beach and take your sightings, you’d be excused for thinking the circus had come to town. With its distinctive blue and yellow panelled railings, changing pavilions sitting atop enormous wooden pylons and steep winding stairs that lead down to the coral lined enclosed ocean pool, the site is indeed carnival like.
Long before Wylie came about the site is thought to have special significance to Aboriginal women and their business. It has maintained its connection with women since. Wyllie’s daughter, Mina and her friends and rival, Fanny Durack were Australia’s first female swimming Olympians and both swam at the baths. From there they were to take their place in history winning the silver and gold medals respectively in the 100 yards freestyle at the Stockholm Olympics in 1912, the first Olympic swimming event for woman.
Wylie himself was a long-distance swimmer but more remarkably, he was the Australian Distance Diving champion in 1896. According to the 1920 Official Swimming Guide of the American Swimming Association, ‘The Plunge for Distance’ as it was jubilantly called,
‘is a dive from a stationary take-off which is free from spring from a height of 18 inches above the water. Upon reaching the water the plunger glides face downward for a period of 60 seconds without imparting any propulsion to the body from the arms and legs.
If marathon swimming is not a spectator sport, then it’s no wonder the diving equivalent of the long jump debuted at the 1904 St Louis Olympics and was never to appear on the Olympic program again. On 5 September 1904, William Dickey of the USA won the only gold medal ever to awarded for the event diving 19.05 M.
Wylie didn’t get to that one Olympic celebration of his pet event but he did build a great pool that hosted the first Australian Swimming Championships and today provides a unique insight to our early swimming history. Perhaps on 5 September each year we should meet at Wylie Baths Coogee and take ‘The Plunge for Distance’ in his honor for, Henry Alexander Wylie and all he did for early Australian swimming.