Jul 25 2012 By Tim Street
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AS the countdown to London 2012 reaches its climax, we take a look at West London's Olympic legacy - whether through Olympians from the area, or those who have had a lasting impact on it. Today, with three days left, Tim Street looks back at a shy young girl from Heston who brought a swimming bronze back from Melbourne in 1956.
SHE was to become an Olympic medallist just eight years later, but when Margaret Edwards first tried to join a swimming club as a nine-year-old in 1948 she was turned away.
It was at the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne that the shy 17-year-old from Heston was thrust into the glare of the world’s media when she won bronze in the 100m backstroke.
It was certainly a rapid rise for a youngster who only took up the sport because her best friend belonged to a swimming club, and had to brush up her technique on a family holiday before she was allowed to compete.
Life was more simple in post-war Heston, where Edwards walked to Springwell Infants School and Berkeley Junior School as a child, and cycled to the Green School in Isleworth as a teenager.
She said: "I wanted to join Heston Swimming Club at the age of nine but they didn’t take non-swimmers. It took me a year to learn, I finally managed it while on a family holiday in Brixham, after which I joined the club straight away and spent the next two years as a breaststroker.
"While having time trials for a higher session I was asked if I would help someone out by swimming backstroke with them. George Fryer (her coach) decided from then on I was to be a backstroker, and within two years I made the final of the National Junior Championship.
"The following year I broke every British, English, district and county record at both junior and senior level, when was just 15 years old, and in 1955 I had my first swim for Britain, so the Olympics were now in my thoughts."
The trials for the Olympic team were held at the National Junior Championships in Blackpool three months before the Games, which were held in November and December as they were in the southern hemisphere.
Three representatives were to be taken for the backstroke – the first three in the final, in which Edwards was second.
She said: "Of course I was thrilled to have been chosen, but also a bit daunted by the thought of going to the other side of the world without family or coaches at the age of 17 – and we were still very young at 17 in those days.
"We were to be away for six weeks. I was given time off each day for training as I was still at school, and I’m afraid my school work did suffer, but this was an opportunity too good to miss.
"We flew to Melbourne on a Super Constellation, which took three-and-a-half days, stopping many times for refuelling and having one overnight stop in Singapore.
"All three of us were potential finalists, so I suppose a medal was in the offing. I don’t think I really thought that much about it. It was only after breaking the Olympic record in the heats that the pressure of a medal was on my shoulders."
The records show Edwards claimed bronze in a time of 1min 13.1secs, hot on the heels of winner and fellow Brit Judith Grinham and second-placed America Carin Cone, who both finished in a new world record time of 1:12.9.
She said: "I was very nervous before the final, and that probably cost me the gold. At the end of the race nobody knew what the result was, and it took the judges and timekeepers 15 minutes to sort it out.
"There was a dead heat for the first and second, and I was just 0.2 seconds behind – there was no electronic timing then. I was so delighted to have got a medal that the colour didn’t worry me at all. Everyone was so happy for us. First and third for Great Britain didn’t happen again until the last Olympics 52 years later."
After the British press corps managed to get a phone line through to London so the girls could talk to their parents, the initial excitement died down and they enjoyed the rest of their time in Australia before returning to the UK 10 days later – to a heroes welcome at Heathrow.
Edwards continued to swim for Britain for another five years, breaking the world record three times, in 1957 and 1958, and claimed a silver medal in both the Commonwealth Games and European Championships in 1958.
It was in the Euros that she was once again beaten to gold by Grinham, but it was still a British one-two – a feat which would not be repeated until Lizzie Simmonds and Gemma Spofforth did so in August 2010.
After leaving school in 1957, Edwards spent a year as a teaching assistant and then went on to teacher training college. She taught in a London prep school until her first son was born in 1965.
She said: "Teaching did have an effect on my training, as did the retirement of George Fryer, my one and only coach. I went on swimming for my club until I was 31, when we started moving away from the area."
Edwards, now Margaret Wilding having married in 1963, carried on swimming irregularly for fitness, but it was not until the mid-1980s that masters swimming came on to the scene and, having taken up the sport again in 1991, she continued to break records with all her former ease.
She said: "I broke world records in each age group up until I was 65. I then had a five-year break as golf took over my life for a while, and I had some personal problems, but I have raced again as a 70-year-old and have broken a further world record in this age group."
Now living in Sussex, Wilding swims for Sussex Martlets for half the year, while spending the other half in New Zealand. She has also lived in Maidenhead, Cheshire, Belgium and Bahrain since leaving Heston in 1969 because the noise from the planes were affecting her children. At first she returned frequently, but has only been back to Heston once since 1984, when her mother moved out of the area.