Today marks the birthday of one of the most successful British female swimmers ever. Former Bognor resident, Joyce Cooper (1909-2002) isn’t a name that springs to mind immediately when thinking of the great sportswomen our county has produced. Yet, according to British Swimming, she remains to this day one of the most decorated female swimmers Britain has ever produced.
Born in Sri Lanka, 18 April 1909, where her father owned a tea plantation, the young Joyce started to swim in the bracing sea off Bognor when the family moved there. It was only in 1925 when, staying in Eastbourne and seeing the strange sight of a woman doing the crawl in a local pool that she thought ‘perhaps I’ll do that’ and started to take up the sport seriously.
Just two years later Joyce was already of medal winning standard. At the 1927 European Championships in Bologna, her first major international event, she came close to winning gold when she tied with another swimmer in the 100m freestyle race. In the days before photo finishes and video re-play, the only way to establish a winner during an apparent draw was to rerun the race. As Joyce was unable to take part in the re-run due to a health issue, she was awarded the silver. She did take home gold from the competition, however, as part of the 4 x100m freestyle team. At the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics, the following year, hopes were high for the British team. Numbers of female competitors had doubled since the last Olympics and, for the first time, the swimmers wouldn’t be hampered by ungainly and heavy, knee-length swimming costumes. Joyce didn’t disappoint and won two bronze medals and a silver for Great Britain. It was at the inaugural British Empire Games in 1930 in Canada, however, where Joyce, representing England, really got into her stride. She won an incredible three gold medals, coming top in three of the four individual women’s titles, topping this with a fourth gold as part of the 4 ×100 yard relay team. At the European Championships in Paris the following year Joyce went on to add three silvers and a bronze to her tally, and in the Los Angeles Olympics of 1932 she won a bronze medal and broke the world record in the heats for the 100m backstroke.
Joyce Cooper was a versatile swimmer who was as much at home swimming back stroke as freestyle and equally comfortable swimming long distances, winning many long distance swimming championships at the same time as her international successes. A woman of many talents, she also worked as a tailor and taught ballroom dancing. In 1934 she married another Olympian, rower John Badcock. Their eldest son, Felix Badcock, also became a medal winning rower.
Although not a household name today, Joyce’s achievements are particularly impressive when you consider that in her youth swimming wasn’t as accessible for women as it is today. Not only was swimwear generally designed for modesty not speed, but most pools only offered segregated bathing times with women having to wait until the appointed ‘ladies day’ to be able to practise.
A worthy inductee in the International Swimming Hall of Fame in 1996, the incredible Joyce Cooper died in Chichester in 2002.