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Shark of the Taff made big splash; Dan O'Neill DOWN MEMORY LANE.

Byline: Dan O'Neill

In the summer of 1912, Cardiff was home to two great swimming legends - Billy the Seal and Paulo Radmilovic. Billy, who locals reckoned was the only swimmer in town who might have given Paulo a problem was, of course, ineligible for that year's Stockholm Olympics so it was left to Paulo - Raddy to every Cardiffian - to put our town on the sporting map.

He did it in style, winning gold for water polo, but Cardiff expected nothing less for Raddy was a phenomenon. At just 15 in 1901 he was the youngest ever swimmer in the Wales national water polo team.

The "interim" Games in Athens in 1906 saw Raddy take his first step up into world-class competition. Two years later at the London Olympics he won gold in the 4x200 metres freestyle and another in, of coS urse, water polo.

He was born in 1886, father Croatian, mother Irish, a Docks' boy who learned to swim in the old Glamorganshire canal. Old timers remembered he'd also walk out to Blackweir, swimming against the ferocious feeder current to strengthen his shoulder muscles.

He needed those muscles for the water polo he concentrated on after the 1908 Games. With his eye on the 1912 Olympics he trained daily in the Guildford Crescent Baths.

Well, 100 years on times have changed. In 1912 America's Ralph Cook Craig won the 100 metres in 10.8 seconds. In the last Olympics Usain Bolt did it in 9.69. The other flagship event, the 1,500 metres, was won by Britain's Arnold Jackson in 3.56.8. In Beijing, four years ago, Rashid Ramzi of Bahrein did it in 3.32.94 - only to be stripped of his medal after a drugs test.

And in 1912 a truly great athlete, perhaps the greatest ever, got the same treatment. Jim Thorpe, a native American (Red Indian to the 1912 Echo) earned global celebrity after destroying the world's best athletes to take golds for the decathlon and pentathlon. So impressed was King Gustav of Sweden that he presented Thorpe with a bronze bust, saying: "Sir, you are without doubt the greatest athlete in the world." Thorpe replied, "Thanks, King."

He returned to the traditional ticker-tape parade in New York but six months later a zealous reporter revealed that he'd been paid for playing minor league baseball in 1909. The International Olympic Committee took away his medals, only returning them to his family in 1982, 29 years after his death, but he lived long enough to see Burt Lancaster play him in the 1951 movie Jim Thorpe: All American.

The Great War denied Raddy the chance of a fourth Olympic gold but it came in 1920 in Antwerp when he scored the winning goal against Belgium in the water polo final. He had to be escorted from the pool by armed guards when home supporters rioted.

"It was a tough contest. Our entire team was covered in scratches and bruises. The crowd booed and hissed and nobody hoisted the Union Jack. The Belgian government apologised next day."

Raddy's last Olympics, but he went on to be named "Shark of the Taff" because of his prowess in the famous Taff Swim from Cardiff (Canton) Bridge to Clarence Road Bridge.

In 1921 he won every British freestyle title but the quarter mile, all the rest from 100 yards to five miles, and he also won the long distance championship of England - 18 years after taking it for the first time. He even competed in the first Empire Games in 1930, but at 44 it was a trip too far.

Raddy died in 1968 aged 82 and was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame in Florida, the only Briton apart from Captain Matthew Webb, first man to swim the English Channel.

In 1988 he was one of the original 10 inductees in the Welsh Sports Hall of Fame and in 2008 a plaque honouring him was placed on Cardiff International Pool.

Only a plaque? Billy the Seal got a statue.



* The crowds marvel at Raddy's prowess as he dives into the Taff. Inset below, the Olympic hero
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Publication:South Wales Echo (Cardiff, Wales)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jul 10, 2012
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