Cecil Healy: "A jolly good fellow"
The name may not mean much – or anything – to the reader, and as far as we know, Cecil Healy’s surfboard riding experiences were limited at best. But as a longtime student of Australian surfing’s rich history, and a sometime recorder of it, I have always been intrigued by the idea of the chubby chap in the onesy who may well be one of our greatest unsung heroes.
So you can imagine my delight when, just in time for the centenary of Armistice Day, a big, fat, old school hardcover book – more than 500 pages of densely-layered biography – landed at my door. On Sunday, 11/11, I surfed a few in the morning, pushed the youngest grandie into a few more, paused for a minute’s reflection at 11am, then spent the afternoon, cold beer in hand, one eye on the cricket, absorbed in Cecil Healy, A Biography.
This admirable book is a labour of love by the three A-listers who produced it. As noted by Stoke Hill Press publisher Geoff Armstrong – himself a sports historian of high pedigree – this book is the first biography of an Olympic gold medallist written by an Olympic gold medallist. Swimmer John Devitt, who won gold in Melbourne in 1956 and in Rome in 1960, has carried a passion to honour his hero in print through most of his adult life, stemming from the facts that both men were involved in controversial 100-metre Olympic finals, and that both have, perhaps unjustly, become footnotes to history.
With this book, Devitt sets out to correct that, ably assisted by Larry Writer, one of the best ghost writers and true crime chroniclers going around. The only true crime here is that we know so little about Cecil Healy, but Larry is in top form nonetheless.
So, what is the relevance to surfing? Okay, the story – one that I’ve touched on in at least two books – in brief: Born in Sydney in 1881, Cecil Healy learnt to swim in the sharky waters of the Harbour and in his teens became an early adopter of the crawl stroke, and a top competitor for the East Sydney Amateur Swimming Club, although always in the shadow of greats Freddie Lane and Snowy Baker. In the new century Healy swam the fastest (unofficial) time ever for the 100 metres free (58 seconds) and went on to enjoy many successes in Europe. Only a lack of funds (he worked as a sportswriter) saw him miss the 1908 Olympics, but in 1912 he became the most senior member of the Australia/New Zealand swimming squad for the Stockholm Olympics.
In addition to his flat water swimming, Healy was a star surf swimmer and lifesaver for the Manly club, and had become interested in surfboard riding through watching the performances of Tommy Walker, who rode a redwood olo he had purchased in Hawaii. Stockholm gave him the opportunity to meet and compete against the greatest surfer and 100-metre swimmer in the world, Duke Kahanamoku. Despite giving the Hawaiian nine years and a few shades of fitness, it soon emerged that Duke would have to beat Cecil for the gold.
What happened next says a lot about the Hawaiian ethos and even more about Cecil Healy. Duke slept in and missed his semi-final. Cecil refused to swim in the final unless Duke was given another chance to qualify. Cecil stormed home in the final, but Duke took the gold by just over a second. Although this would define him as a “jolly good fellow” rather than a champion for the rest of his short life, Cecil had no regrets, and no animosity towards the laidback Kahanamoku. In fact he was the NSW swimming official who pressed hardest for Duke to lead a Hawaiian tour of Australia in the summer of 1914-15, just as our lads were being freighted to Gallipoli, like so many sardines.
Cecil Healy, second from left, and Duke Kahanamoku, slouching next to upright, at 'Boomerang', Freshwater, 1915 (Warringah Library Local Studies)
Although Kahanamoku is often erroneously credited with introducing surfboard riding to Australia on this tour, there is no doubt that his exhibitions popularized the sport and helped embed it in our culture. The tour also gave two of the true spirits of the ocean sports the opportunity to bro down and enjoy lazy days of body womping and reminiscing on the deck of 'Boomerang' surf shack at Freshwater. At the end of a hugely successful tour, the Hawaiians were farewelled at the NSW Sports Club. As Devitt and Writer note:
As the guests filtered out of the Sports Club that hot summer night in 1915, Cecil wished his dear friend and great rival Godspeed for the sea voyages that lay ahead. They doubtless made plans to catch up in America, in Europe or back in Australia. The Duke would never see him again.
Cecil Healy served with distinction in the AIF on the Western Front, gaining the rank of Second Lieutenant before he tracked across a field looking for a German machine-gun nest on August 29, 1918. The machine gunner found him first, ripping a round through his neck and chest. He was just 36.
A century later, the man behind this book, John Devitt, poignantly paid his respects to his hero at his grave at the New British Cemetery in Assevillers, France. That moment, captured in a lovely photo on the back fly jacket, reverberates throughout this worthy, passionate biography.
'Cecil Healy: A Biography', by John Devitt and Larry Writer (Stoke Hill Press, $39.95), available at all good book stores and online sellers.