By: Alyssa de Boer
Dawn Fraser's status as an Australian icon is not in doubt; John Singleton, in his foreword to her recently published autobiography, Dawn: One Hell of a Life, begins: `In many, many ways our Dawn is our Australia' (p. ix). She has an international reputation and stands shoulder to shoulder with Muhammad Ali as one of the world's two greatest athletes. Fraser is an icon of sporting achievement, having won gold medals in.three consecutive Olympics and the honour of being identified by her first name, and has assumed legendary status for her many off-field antics. On the dust jacket of the book, the claim is made that Dawn is Australia's `most recognised and best-loved sportswoman'. In her autobiography, she confronts many of her critics and attempts to set to rights some of the misinformation surrounding her myth. In fact, in a recent Sunday Mail article she is quoted as saying: `I wanted to set the record straight on so many aspects of my life that had been twisted and surrounded by rumours' (Whiting 2001). In this construction of her identity, she draws on numerous discourses, but primarily on those of competitive sport, ambition, class, gender, larrikinism and anti-authoritarianism, family, marriage, motherhood, sexuality, hardship and personal growth, and business integrity. These intersect in various combinations throughout the text. Although she has been an accomplished athlete, she has suffered much, both in her sport and in her private life. She states that her reason for writing the book `was to say to people, "You can get up when you've been knocked down; you can go on; you can face tomorrow no matter what has happened to you and you can find a way out of the darkest places"' (ibid.). Here she constructs herself predominantly as a survivor and foregrounds her personal struggles rather than her achievements.
Nonetheless, the dominant construction of herself in her autobiography is as a highly successful and competitive athlete. Dawn is constructed as being `a swimmer' from her earliest childhood—indeed from her birth. She began swimming at the age of four. She constructs her sporting ability as `natural', an attribute that most of the Frasers shared. Clearly, though, it was also cultural, in that most of the family activities centred on swimming or water activities. Her achievements are also represented as being the product of hard work, tenacity and ambition. Her training, in a sense, began when she was eight, with a cousin as coach, although strictly speaking she did not get a coach until she was about twelve. The descriptions of the arduous training, the gamesmanship and strategies, as well as the goal-setting and achievements, make this a book that targets those readers who have an interest in sport and the psychology of winners. She studied her opposition (p. 186) and then tried to unsettle them in pre-race moments by dominating the marshalling area with boisterous behaviour designed to annoy, frustrate and destroy concentration.
Dawn mobilises the dominant discourse of anti-authoritarianism in constructing herself as a working-class Australian larrikin whose achievements were overshadowed by her flouting of authority. In many instances, Dawn valorises her rebelliousness: she claims she was `naturally wary of people who seemed to be in authority' (p. 44) and played games with her coach to demonstrate that she didn't like being told what to do' (p. 52), and she constantly asserts that she didn't like being controlled, whether by coaches, sporting administrators, husband and/or lovers. Even as a child, when a sporting administrator warns that she will never swim for Australia because of her apparent association with a professional body, she is resistant. Dawn claims it was perhaps this incident that sowed the seeds of her sporting ambitions. `I did not like to be told what I couldn't do', she says (p. 37). This becomes a constant thread through the text and one that she…