A passion discovered late in life challenged Corrie de Groot for a quarter of a century.
Then most afternoons she would swim, completing a leisurely 80 laps or so.
Not so for Australian Unity’s Walmsley Aged Care resident Corrie de Groot, who took up competitive swimming at the age of 56. Within two years she won two gold medals and broke a world record at the inaugural FINA World Masters Championships in Tokyo in 1986.
Inspired, she took up competitive running aged 60 and ran her first Melbourne Marathon at 61 – winning in her age group.
“She has always been active and fit,” says daughter Carole Podt. “At 90, she still can’t sit still.”
Born in the Netherlands in January 1928, Corrie was a keen skater and gymnast as a child. But moving to Australia in 1957, building a house in Melbourne’s east and caring for her children, Peter and Carole, kept her too busy for sport – especially when she became a single mum.
“It all started when I got married and left home,” says Carole. That’s when Corrie got her driver’s licence too, aged 56, when there were no kids at home to give her lifts.
“She found the North Lodge Neptunes Masters Swimming Club and loved it,” says Carole. “She’s always been good at long-distance swimming, especially breaststroke.”
Corrie’s build and mental strength also turned out to be perfect for long- distance running, and she soon had a regular routine.
“Three times a week she would go for a long run first thing in the morning before breakfast for about an hour,” Carole remembers.
“Then most afternoons she would swim, completing a leisurely 80 laps or so.”
At 50 metres a lap, that’s four kilometres a day.
“On the days she didn’t run, she would ride her pushbike for hours.”
“Once she started running, you couldn’t stop her,” Carole says.
“She loved competing in the annual Melbourne Marathon, the Great Train Race against Puffing Billy and with the Croydon Vic Vets Athletics Club.”
Corrie was fiercely competitive, always striving to beat her own personal best or crack a new record.
Over her 26-year “sporting career”, she held Victorian, Australian and world records – often over multiple age groups. Some still stand.
At 75, she broke the Victorian, Australian and world records for running a mile (1.6 kilometres) – then set a new Australian record in the 1500 metres.
“She had a trophy room just packed with medals and awards,” Carole says.
Australian Masters Athletics confirms that Corrie still holds the world records for the women’s 75 years (W75) 1.6-kilometre and one-hour runs; the Australian record for W75 10-kilometre run; and the Victorian records for 400 metres, 1500 metres and the half marathon in the W75 category.
In swimming, she set seven records across three age groups in state and national competitions.
That’s in addition to the world record her team set in Japan in 1986 for the 200-metre mixed medley. Corrie still holds the 800-metre breaststroke record in Victoria from 1993, set when she was 65.
Over the years, Corrie competed in New Zealand, Canada and the US, and carried the Olympic torch during its Australian relay in 2000.
At 82, she was still running half marathons, but that year she had a bad fall and never fully recovered.
Sadly, the grandmother of three and great-grandmother of two now suffers from dementia, so doesn’t remember her achievements. She moved to Walmsley Aged Care in Kilsyth about 18 months ago and still loves to walk.
“Mum’s favourite photo is the one where she is running through the desert,” Carole says.
“She is in her early 70s in this photo, competing at the biennial Alice Springs Masters Games, which was her favourite, always coming home with a bag full of medals – mostly gold.”
W75 1.6-kilometre and one-hour runs
W75 10-kilometre run
W75 400 metres, 1500 metres and half-marathon
Words: Jane Canaway
Portraits: Dean Golja