On 11 August 1936, the finalists in the women’s 200m breaststroke final lined up poolside at the Berlin Olympics. Amongst the favourites for the title was 17 year old Doris Storey from Leeds, the British record holder. It was the first time Doris had travelled further from home than Scarborough. She had qualified strongly but had slipped and fallen before the final and her fractured wrist was heavily bandaged.
Despite her injury, she started well and took an early lead but struggled with her turns and eventually slipped to sixth. Her valiant effort won the admiration of Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s Head of Propaganda, who invited Doris to a summer ball with a giant invitation card. She declined, just as she had refused to stand for Hitler himself when he entered the stadium.
On her return to Leeds later that month, Doris received a civic reception and crowds lined the streets to welcome her home. She could hardly have had a better reception if she had won gold.
Her coach predicted that even greater things would follow for Doris and he was right: she went on to win two gold medals at the British Empire Games in Sydney in 1938 (220 yards breaststroke and 3 x 110 yards medley relay) setting an individual world record in the process. On the voyage to Sydney, Doris trained by swimming in the sea alongside the boat and was once startled by a dolphin which she mistook for a shark. In her panic, she seized hold of a team-mate and almost drowned him.
When not training, Doris worked as a machinist at Burton’s tailoring factory in Leeds, her down-to-earth northern roots being in stark contrast to the typical ‘lady amateur’ Olympian of the 1930s.
Sadly, the Second World War prevented Doris from achieving even greater heights. By the time it ended, Doris was married with a young family but still harboured dreams of one final shot at glory at the London Olympics of 1948.
Months of dedicated training appeared to have paid off when she finished in a qualifying spot at the Olympic trials in July 1948 but she was controversially omitted from the squad. Officials selected a younger, slower competitor and ruled that Doris’s responsibilities as a wife and mother were incompatible with competing at the Olympics.
Her omission sparked an outcry but the decision stood. Commenting on being overlooked, Doris said: “This is a terrible disappointment after putting my heart and soul into training to swim for my country“. The local newspaper letters page on 15 July 1948 echoed those sentiments, with correspondents variously describing her omission as “surprising”, “disgusting” and “exasperating”.
Following her enforced retirement from elite competition, Doris and her husband Norman Quarmby ran a fish and chip shop in Osmondthorpe. Shortly before her death in 2005, Doris was inducted into the Sydney Swimming Hall of Fame. She is remembered with fondness in her home city of Leeds, particularly by those whom she coached to swim or served with fish and chips!
Rare footage of Doris swimming can be viewed here.
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Picture credit: British Newspaper Archive and Pathé News