To some children who grew up in Scotland in the 1980s, David Wilkie was just a guy with a big moustache in tiny trunks who was always on telly talking about swimming (see video below). But to everybody else he remains quite rightly one of Scotland’s greatest Olympians.
Wilkie, born in 1954 in Sri Lanka, is and always has been a fiercely proud Scot.
Wilkie’s father worked in the tea industry, and he spent the first eleven years of his life in Asia. But they were critical times in hindsight, as his exposure to warmer climes allowed him to swim almost daily from an early age, either in the pool or in the sea.
By the time he moved to Edinburgh to attend High School (enrolling and boarding at Daniel Stewart’s College) he was already a very talented swimmer. But it was at these early stages in his career that it first became apparent to the young Wilkie that to succeed at the very top, talent wasn’t enough.
He joined Warrender Park Swimming Club, but found the going tough.
“It was awful. Warrender wasn’t the best pool for training Olympic hopefuls. The lane ropes were pieces of strong nylon dividing the lanes. There were about 20 swimmers in this freezing cold pool. It was rough as hell and the chlorine was harsh. In those days we didn’t wear goggles, so our eyes were stinging.”
Wilkie swiftly decided competitive swimming wasn’t up his street. It had lost its fun since he came to Scotland – thanks in no small part to the inhospitable weather. Thankfully Frank Thomas, his coach, was able to see Wilkie’s potential, and encouraged him to stick at it.
Wilkie was ranked 25th in the world at the 200m breast-stroke when he arrived at the Munich Games. He wasn’t expected to do much. Then he made the final as the second fastest qualifier. “Bells should have started ringing somewhere. They were certainly ringing in my head!” he recalled.
He went on to win a silver medal in the event, losing out against the man who would become his greatest rival, John Hencken. The American had beaten Wilkie by over 2 seconds that day in Munich, but life was about to take a dramatic turn for the newly acclaimed Scottish swimmer.
His performances at the games in Germany hadn’t just set tongues wagging at home – those who judged him as a waster and a no-hoper were eating their words – but he had also ignited a few debates across the pond, in the USA.
He received interest from several esteemed universities, offering him scholarships to develop his swimming and academic skills at their establishments. He was even courted by Harvard, the most prestigious of all the American institutions. But it didn’t take him long to make up his mind. He chose the University of Miami.
He trained hard in Florida, and his battle with Hencken was revisited again and again in various meets over the years. In that time Wilkie had won the World 200m breaststroke title in 1973, before breaking the world record and regaining the title in 1975. He also picked up two golds and one silver at the Commonwealth Games in Christchurch in 1974, and added the European title to his collection.
Then the big one came round again – the Olympic Games, this time being held in Montreal, Canada, in 1976. Wilkie had revenge on his mind after losing out to Hencken in Germany four years earlier. They were both in contention for gold medals, in both the 100m and 200m breast-stroke events.
According to the British Olympic coach Dave Haller, Hencken was always more likely to be stronger over 100m, as his rapid arm movements were more suited to a sprint race, while Wilkie’s longer, more rhythmic strokes meant he was fancied over the longer distance.
As it turned out, it was honours even for the pair. Hencken, as expected, triumphed in the shorter race, squeezing Wilkie into second, earning the Scot his second Olympic silver medal.
But in the 200m, as the race edged towards the last of four laps in the 50m pool, there was only going to be one winner. Side by side in lanes three and four, Hencken led for the first 100m. Wilkie, with his now legendary white cap, goggles and moustache combo, (he was the first swimmer to wear a cap and goggle together in competitive racing) realised it was do-or-die time in his quest for a gold.
In the remaining 100m, his stamina and power came through. He took the lead towards the end of lap 3, and coasted to victory in the final length, winning by more than two seconds, cementing his place his history as a Scottish Olympic Legend.
Adapted from In the Winning Zone
On July 24, 2976, David Wilkie retired from the sport after becoming the first Briton to win an Olympic swimming gold for 68 years. He remains active in promoting swimming in Scotland today.