When freestyler Lauren Boyle attempts to become just the second New Zealand woman to win an Olympic swimming medal over the next couple of days, no one will be cheering harder than the first.

"I heard this year that I'm still the only one and I can't believe it," says Jean Hurring, who won the 100m backstroke bronze medal at Helsinki in 1952.

"It's so sad. We've had so many good swimmers. Lauren is a beautiful swimmer. It would be fabulous ... she probably doesn't realise how many old swimmers would love to see her win a medal."

Hurring is gracious, funny, and consistently self-deprecating when we meet at the large Takapuna retirement complex she moved into a couple of years ago.


When I double check her age, she says: "I'm 80 something but I've never worked it out. I'd rather not know."

Hurring is 85, and it goes without saying the era in which she excelled bears little resemblance to the one being beamed in from Rio.

In her heyday, New Zealand didn't have a coach, and no one even held a stop watch for her at the Games in Finland. Her mentor in Dunedin was a chap named Bill Wallace, an "enthusiast" more than anything.

She was ahead of her time though, setting up a pulley in her Dunedin bedroom for swim-specific weight training. The weights would swing wildly so she spread cushions around to limit any damage. Wallace was interested in horse racing and got some of his concepts from there, leading to Hurring adopting innovative interval training.

It led to Olympic glory for Hurring, who roomed with athletics star and fellow Dunedenite Yvette Corlett (nee Williams) in Helsinki. Corlett won the long jump gold medal in Finland making it a memorable haul for the only women in the 1952 team.

They had prepared in London but once in Finland, Hurring - who was Jean Stewart then - had trouble finding training facilities, especially ones befitting a top athlete. She stumbled upon a pool one day only to find it was for a sauna and trained au natural after being told she could not enter the water in a swimsuit.

Glory lay ahead, even if the most basic of information was hard to find along the way. Having qualified fourth fastest, it needed the assistance of an English journalist for Hurring to discover there would be no semifinals.

The final ended in confusion, as Hurring and a Dutch swimmer were given the same time.

One official called her third, another fourth. The judges ruled in Hurring's favour.

The bronze was hers, relieving the pressure she had felt to vindicate her selection and make a stand for women's sport

Helsinki was Hurring's sporting zenith. She went on to marry her Olympic teammate Lincoln Hurring (he died in 1993) and their son Gary became one of New Zealand's best swimmers and is the head coach in Rio. He is also the keeper of her Olympic medal at his Wellington home.

Hurring and Corlett remained friends and there were regular reunions of old teammates although they have petered out, and many of her comrades have passed away.

Hurring's only foray into the water these days is at the retirement village pool, where she exercises to strengthen a shoulder post-operation. Gone are the much-loved ocean swims, replaced by gentle walks around the complex. She is thoroughly enjoying the Rio action and was particularly taken with weightlifting on the day we called.

Boyle's bid to win an 800m freestyle medal might bring back a memory or two - she has met Boyle once.

"We didn't talk much - I was too busy looking up to her, how wonderful she was. She wouldn't know anything about me - it's funny to be older than everyone else," says Hurring

"It's a joy to have a good swimmer we can look out for. I hope we can find some more."