Masters swimmer Margaret Cunningham with son-in-law and fellow Masters swimmer, Nigel Dalton. The pair look through Margaret’s old scrapbook of her swimming achievements. Picture: Tony Martin
Masters swimmer Margaret Cunningham with son-in-law and fellow Masters swimmer, Nigel Dalton. The pair look through Margaret’s old scrapbook of her swimming achievements. Picture: Tony Martin

Nine decades and 34 world records later

MARGARET Cunningham is one of a kind.

To say she has lived an eventful life would be to ­drastically undersell her achievements.

At a time when women were expected to stay at home and tend to the needs of the family, Margaret was breaking new ground.

During the Second World War, she worked at the Met Office in London doing "background critical work", as her son-in-law Nigel Dalton ­delicately termed it.

When the war ended, ­Margaret returned to finish her mathematics degree at the University of St Andrews and got a job with Shell as a ­reservoir engineer, based in Venezuela.

When the world told her to stay in her lane, Margaret said no thank you.

In fact the only lane to which she stayed true, was the one in water.

For all of Margaret's personal and professional achievements on land, the 94 year old is best known for her incredible feats in the pool.

Few could claim to have covered as many water miles as the former Scottish national champion and favourite daughter of Inverness.

In an age of Facebook photo galleries numbering into the thousands and blink-and-miss-it Instagram feeds, ­Margaret's most treasured memories are kept safe inside an 80-year-old scrapbook.

The age-affected pages and Old English prose tell the story of a young girl's rise through the Scottish swimming ranks.

 

Margaret Cunningham with her cherished scrapbook of swimming memories. Picture: Tony Martin
Margaret Cunningham with her cherished scrapbook of swimming memories. Picture: Tony Martin

Her list of accolades numbers into the hundreds: five-time FINA Masters World Championships competitor, boasting 24 medals including 12 gold, 14 short course and 20 long course world records, ­junior Scottish champion, ­University of St Andrews' "Athletics Full Blue" awardee and, as of 2016, International Swimming Hall of Fame inductee.

If not for the war, that list would almost certainly include a berth at the Summer Olympics; if not for sexist views of the time, she may still have made the London Games in 1948.

"As she puts it, when she trained in those days they ­basically played; nothing as formal as what she did when she was older," Cannonvale Cannons coach Mark Erickson said of the woman he worked with for two decades. "Back in those days when she wanted to train for the next lot of meets, the coach told her she was too old and should instead be ­married and have kids by then.

"She missed out on making the Scottish team (for the London Games) by one one-hundredth of a second."

When Margaret and husband Lindsay moved to Australia in the mid-80s, the then-coach reprised her competitive career as a Masters swimmer.

 

Swimmer Margaret Cunningham. Picture: Tony Martin
Swimmer Margaret Cunningham. Picture: Tony Martin

The Doncaster Dolphins uncovered a superstar who, as mentioned, went on to compete at and medal in five FINA Masters World Championships.

Erickson linked with Margaret when she moved to Airlie Beach in 1990.

Under his guidance, Margaret competed at the 1990 Masters in Rio, 1996 in Sheffield and, finally, in Perth in 2008.

"She is a very strong-minded lady," Erickson said.

"She knew what she wanted and was willing to work to get what she was after."

Margaret still holds a number of decades-old Australian records,

"The 50 freestyle was the one she really worked hard for. I can't remember her exact age, she was in her 80s I know that much, but I remember the time - 36.01 (seconds).

"That's very quick. There's a lot of kids here that would love to be going that fast."

Margaret's incredible dedication to her swimming craft extended to her everyday life.

Erickson recalled a day he paid a visit to her old five-acre property in Airlie Beach and was shocked at what he saw.

"She was climbing the roof. A possum had gotten stuck in the chimney. She couldn't get it so she got me to go up there and get it … but only after she had already been on the roof," Erickson said.

"She is an old school 'cross the Ts, dot the Is' type. She has done a lot of things that ladies probably weren't doing during her era and she did it all herself.

"She is just a lovely person and I had a great time working with her for 17 years, as a coach and as a friend."

The Whitsunday Masters Swimming Club life member now swims with the North Mackay Sinkers.

She may not be able to swim the 50 freestyle in under 40 seconds anymore but, with her 95th birthday fast-approaching, Margaret still has records to set.

At the Sinkers' next meet on February 22, Margaret will swim for the first time in the 95-100 years age group.

As one might expect, the Palmview Retirement Village resident has few rivals in that category. None, actually.

There will be no records to break because none have been set, at least in Australia.

Just as she did in the 1930s, then 40s and again in the 80s and 90s, Margaret is set to rewrite the record books once again.



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