When Mount Isa sent a swimmer to the first Tokyo Olympic Games

Reward: John Oravainen with his Silver Medal from the 1962 Perth British Empire and Commonwealth Games. Photographs supplied by John Oravainen.

Reward: John Oravainen with his Silver Medal from the 1962 Perth British Empire and Commonwealth Games. Photographs supplied by John Oravainen.

Mount Isa may not have any athletes competing in this year's summer Olympics but the city was represented the last time the Olympics were held in Tokyo in 1964.

John Oravainen was a blond Nordic man who embraced every young migrant's dream of a new life in Australia, with its abundant sunshine and summer sport.

Born in Finland in 1943, Oravainen moved with his family in the late 1940s to Mount Isa, arriving in one of the hottest summers then on record.

They could have been forgiven for fleeing back to Finland but the family persisted and John did his schooling here.

According to local historian Kim-Maree Burton, Oravainen was a regular lad, skylarking with his school mates at the local pool, until he started to take a more serious interest in swimming lessons, which in turn lead to his joining the local swimming club.

The teenager swam his way through weekly club meets eventually gaining selection for the 1960 and 1961 North Queensland Swimming Championships in Townsville.

Ms Burton said Oravainen's quiet determination and strong training ethic saw him swim into national contention at his first state titles in 1962.

"Yet another dream came true that year when he was selected, alongside Olympian and Mount Isa swimmer, Bill Burton, for the Australian Swimming Team to compete in the British Empire and Commonwealth Games in Perth," Ms Burton said.

"Oravainen had been swimming in Burton's wake for several years and he knew that this was the year that he could and would swim into medal contention."

So it proved with Oravainen taking out a silver medal in the 440 yards (400 metres) Individual Medley.

Burton also won two silvers at the games as the friendly rivalry between the pair continued.

But Oravainen had good reason to begrudge the favourable treatment of Burton who was the only one of four Mount Isa swimmers named in the 1963 Queensland Team offered financial assistance to attend the Australian Swimming Championships in Perth.

Oravainen and Mount Isa club mates Lennette Jones and Lyn Abbot had to finance their own expenses and the incident led Oravainen to move to Sydney to train under coach Don Talbot in the lead up to the Australian National Titles and possible selection for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

Talbot was named second coach of the Australian Olympic Swimming Team and he helped Oravainen join the Australian Swimming Team at their Olympic training camp in Ayr.

Despite a thumb injury, Oravainen showed strength in adversity as he doubled his training schedule and lengthened his swim coverage to five miles per day to make up for his late preparation.

On the eve of the team's departure for Tokyo, Talbot was not confident about Oravainen's times or inclusion in the men's medley relay team.

Olympians: John Oravainen, Don Talbot (co-coach) and Bill Burton poolside in Ayr, at the Australian training camp for the 1962 Perth British Empire and Commonwealth Games.

Olympians: John Oravainen, Don Talbot (co-coach) and Bill Burton poolside in Ayr, at the Australian training camp for the 1962 Perth British Empire and Commonwealth Games.

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The Australian mens medley relay team is not strong this year without Murray Rose and the Americans are our main worry. John will be very fortunate to make the finals, Talbot said.

But Oravainen surprised everyone when he swam into the semi-finals, not in his beloved medley event but in the 200 metre breaststroke event in Tokyo.

He finished a creditable fourth place in the semis, in a time of two minutes 38.3 seconds, and narrowly missed going through to the finals.

In the Individual Medley Oravainen finished third in the first round, but it was not enough to get through to the semis.

Never one to brook excuses for his performances, Oravainen acknowledged nerves got the better of him as he stood on the blocks.

The atmosphere at the Olympic Games was overwhelming for a kid from the bush, he told the Mount Isa Mail on his return home to Isa.

"Even the Perth Commonwealth Games didnt prepare me for the magnitude of the Olympics and the Opening and Closing Ceremonies were experiences I wont ever forget", Oravainen said.

Within weeks of returning home, he welcomed fellow Olympic champions, Kevin Berry and Bob Windle to the Mount Isa Memorial Swimming Pool.

Berry, the 200 metre Olympic butterfly champion and Windle, the Olympic 1500 metre titleholder along with local Olympians, Oravainen and Burton, brought world class swimming to the mining town.

Six weeks later, at the State Swimming Championships, Oravainen won the open 200 metre breaststroke final from Burton, in one minute 14.7 seconds, but failed to break Burton's state record.

And just as Oravainen swam in the wake of Burton for many years, he soon had another local lad extend his strokes with an eye on future Olympic representation of his own in Bill Sweetenham.

As Kim-Maree Burton said the migrant lad from Finland overcame the obstacles of learning a new language and lifestyle in a new country, and dreamed the improbable dream to compete at an Olympic Games,

"John Oravainen went on to achieve his goals with precision and dedication; traits which ought to be acknowledged, not as one of the forgotten Mount Isa Olympians, but as a much deserved Mount Isa champion," she said.

This story From Finland to Mount Isa to the first Tokyo Olympics first appeared on The North West Star.