Described as “the finest swimmer in the British Empire”, Nancy Riach was a record-breaking athlete who excelled at every stroke before her life was tragically cut short.
Born in Motherwell in 1927, the youngster became a member of the Motherwell Amateur Swimming and Water Polo Club, winning her first championship in 1938 and breaking her first Scottish record at 15.
Devoutly religious, she refused to compete on Sundays, but her faith didn’t hold her back and by 1945 she held an astonishing 28 Scottish and British records.
In 1946, she was British freestyle champion at 100m, 200m and 400m, and went on to win the 100m freestyle title in the World Student Games in Paris in the summer of 1947.
Later that year, she contracted polio while competing at the European Swimming Championships in Monte Carlo. Against doctors' advice she continued to race and was pulled unconscious from the pool at the end of the 100m freestyle. She never regained consciousness and died aged just 20.
Nancy was buried in her swimming costume in Airdrie on 20 September 1947, with an estimated 10,000 people attending the funeral procession.
United Nations Swimming Committee chairman, ST Hurst, said later: “She was undoubtedly the finest swimmer the British Empire has ever produced…and the finest ambassador of sport that Scotland or any other country in the British Empire has ever turned out.”
In 1949, the Scottish Amateur Swimming Association established The Nancy Riach Memorial Medal, awarded annually to the person who does the most to enhance Scottish swimming.
Honour your hero