David Wilkie was Great Britain’s first superstar swimmer, becoming the only person to have held Olympic, European, British, American, Commonwealth and world swimming titles simultaneously!
As the most successful international swimmer of the 20th century, he became a household name after winning Olympic gold in 1976 in the 200m breaststroke. He has been inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame and the Scottish Sports Hall of Fame and has been described as Scotland’s greatest ever swimmer in the history of the sport.
Now aged 64, he has remained active in the world of swimming, teaching youngsters to swim and also developing new swimming aids and technology. He is still a force to be reckoned with in the pool – last year, he was ticked off by a lifeguard for apparently swimming too fast at the Berkshire Virgin Active Club in Bracknell!
Wilkie didn’t see the funny side of the incident, which occurred as he did the front crawl in the pool’s fast lane – calling the lifeguard “over-zealous” and resigning his club membership!
Wilkie’s parents, who hailed from Aberdeen in Scotland, were living in Colombo, Sri Lanka, when their son was born on 8th March 1954. He loved the water almost as soon as he could walk, learning to swim at the age of three in the open-air pool at Colombo Swimming Club.
When he was 11, he was sent to continue his education at Daniel Stewart’s College – a boarding school in Edinburgh. He continued swimming at Warrender Baths Club, where his talent became apparent from the onset.
Trained by leading British coach Frank Thomas, who began intensive development of Wilkie’s breaststroke, when his swimming career was at its peak, Wilkie credited Thomas with motivating him to excel at the sport.
Wilkie joined the Scottish Training Squad (part of the Scottish Amateur Swimming Association) in 1969. At the age of just 16, he took part in his first adult competitive event (the 1970 Commonwealth Games) where he won bronze in the 100m breaststroke. In 1972, at age 18, he won five events at the Scottish national long course championships.
He was then part of the British team at the 1972 Olympic Games, winning a silver medal in the 200m breaststroke. Until this point, his training routine had been relatively modest, but winning the silver spurred him on to train harder and achieve greater victories.
With this in mind, he became a student of marine biology at the University of Miami in January 1973, taking advantage of their world-class training facilities. He developed sufficient self-motivation to become the world’s leading breaststroke swimmer.
At the World Championships in Belgrade in the summer of 1973, he broke the European and Commonwealth records in the 200m breaststroke. Later in the same day, he went on to set a new world record in the same event.
A year later, he won the 200m individual medley and the 200m breaststroke at both the European Championships and the Commonwealth Games. He set a new world record with his winning time in the individual medley at the European Championships.
Wilkie went unbeaten in the 200-metre breaststroke in all competitions between 1972 and 1976. He continued to steamroller the competition throughout 1975, winning the gold medal in the individual breaststroke event and bronze in the medley relay at the 1975 World Championships.
In 1976, he became the first British swimmer ever to win American Championship titles (three in total) when he won the 200m individual medley and the 100m and 200m breaststroke.
His success was the best preparation for the Montreal Olympic Games of 1976, as it was his greatest ambition to win Olympic gold.
He didn’t disappoint his legion of fans at the summer Olympics, where he won gold in the 200m breaststroke, knocking more than three seconds off the world record. At the age of just 22, he achieved a performance described by many experts as the greatest they had ever seen at the Olympics.
His world record set in 1976 remained unbeaten for six years and he became a superstar of a magnitude seldom seen in the 1970s.
Wilkie made a choice to retire from competitive swimming while at the top of his game after his Olympic triumph. Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II awarded him an MBE in her Birthday Honours list in recognition of his outstanding achievements in 1977.
Although he had retired from competitive events, he remained active in the world of swimming, spearheading the schools’ “Learn to Swim” campaign in the mid-1970s. Pupils were delighted to see the Olympian arrive at their school to promote the value of learning to swim, which could save their life.
He has also been active in developing swimming aids and new technology. He has always been interested in technology, being the first swimmer to wear a swimming hat and goggles.
In his private life, David met his Swedish partner Helen Isacson in 1985 and the couple have two children, Adam and Natasha.
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