Laurie Joseph Lawrence
“His voice beams with enthusiasm, pride and with the feeling that nothing easy is worth doing. It is defying the odds… doing the impossible that excites Laurie Lawrence. He is the master innovator. He inspires confidence and belief. No challenge is too great, no task is impossible. Everyone around him soaks in his enthusiasm. He cares deeply about the people he influences, and he refuses to rest until he has achieved his best.” The Sport Australia Hall of Fame
Laurie Lawrence, a swimming legend and a creator of champions, is an Australian sporting icon. An extrovert, a patriot, a poet, a humourist. Proud, persistent, spirited, sincere, honest, gritty, direct, determined. Possessing “infectious enthusiasm” and a near unrivalled work ethic, Lawrence firmly believed that “no challenge is too great, no task is impossible.” Lawrence is a winner. He is also a Wallaby. Not bad for a kid who literally struggled to breathe as a child. Simply amazing for a young man with one lung.
Born in Townsville, a young Lawrence suffered from Bronchiectasis, a condition that affects the airways to the lungs. As a result, Lawrence had to sleep upright in a chair. Doctors advised the family that surgery was required. That surgery removed the bottom part of Lawrence’s left lung. Those same medicos encouraged Lawrence to swim, which he did every day, and his breathing improved.
At the time Lawrence’s father managed the local Tobruk Pool and the family lived in an apartment that overlooked the lanes. In 1956 the Australian Olympic swim team came to Townsville and trained at the Lawrence’s pool. Young Laurie was starstruck by legends of the sport including Dawn Fraser and Murray Rose. Lawrence Snr. also managed the North Queensland rugby league side and his son played the game as a boy.
At the age of 15 Lawrence moved to Brisbane where he was educated at St. Laurence’s. He played 1st XV rugby and 1st XI cricket in his final year and from there represented All Schools in both sports. Lawrence then won a scholarship to become a schoolteacher however he wanted to go one step further and teach Physical Education. Lawrence joined the Teachers’ College rugby club and enjoyed great success as the team took out the 1963 Hospital Cup with a 28-6 thumping of the University of Queensland. That same season Lawrence made his debut for Queensland in their 15-11 win over Wallabies 2 at Lang Park.
In 1964, Lawrence played three state games - including a 30-12 victory against the Junior All Blacks -- before he was selected for the trials ahead of the Wallaby tour to New Zealand. In the late game on the second day of trials, the “9-stone Queensland halfback Laurie Lawrence again proved the sensation. Lawrence, with his silver slick game and constant backing up, must surely have clinched the position of second halfback to New Zealand.” Lawrence was then paid the ultimate compliment: ‘He is being likened to Catchpole in style of play’ before being named to face Catchpole, for the Rest, in the final trial against Australia. Prior to that match the press wrote: ‘Some keen personal duels are certain to highlight the game tomorrow. Although their positions do not appear to be in jeopardy for the tour, a clash is sure to develop between brilliant halfbacks Ken Catchpole and Laurie Lawrence.’
As expected, both halfbacks were chosen for the short eight match tour. In the week leading into the big game against Auckland all the talk was around the contest between Catchpole and Des Connor. Connor, who had played 12 Tests, twice as captain, for Australia (1957-59) had gone on to become the only Wallaby to play Test rugby for New Zealand. The day before the match Catchpole spoke with Lawrence. Catchpole told Lawrence that he wanted to look after his pulled hamstring ahead of the first Test and, as a consequence, the Queenslander would be playing his first match for Australia. On game day, and with a crowd of more than 50,000 literally hanging from the rafters at Eden Park, the ground announcer began to introduce the Australian team: “Number 1 for Australia – Terry Casey (roar!!); number 2 Dave Grimmond.….Phil Hawthorne (roar!!) and halfback Ken Catchpole……has been replaced by L. Lawrence”. The collective groan of disappointment that greeted Lawrence’s arrival onto the field that day may well have been heard in Bondi.
Lawrence returned home “really keen to make the tour of the British Isles”, scheduled for the end of the 1966 season, however he was soon transferred from Brisbane’s Corinda High School to Harristown State High School and appointed as a house master at Toowoomba Grammar. Unfortunately, the climate did not agree with Lawrence and his breathing, a situation that saw him resign and return home to Townsville. On his dad’s urging Lawrence turned his teaching focus to the pool. While swimming quickly began to dominate his life, Lawrence continued to play rugby -- for James Cook University – where he won both the 1967 Craven A trophy for the best and fairest player and a first-grade premiership. In 1970, and now alongside fellow Wallaby Alan Skinner, he picked up a second premiership with Brothers.
It was at this time that Lawrence retired from rugby and threw his energies into swimming. He travelled to America and studied coaching techniques under some of the greats of U.S. swimming including Don Gambril, Flip Darr and Sherm Chavoor – mentor of nine-time Olympic champion Mark Spitz. Clearly the learnings, particularly the benefit of hard work, resonated with Lawrence. He went on to coach Steven Holland, Tracey Wickham, Jon Sieben and Duncan Armstrong. Along the way swimmers under Lawrence’s tutelage won 10 Olympic Games gold medals, 11 silver medals and 12 bronze medals.
In 1988 Lawrence was voted All Sports “National Coach of the Year” by the prestigious Confederation of Australian Sports and the following year he was presented with an Australian Achievers Award to honour his selection by the National Australia Day Council as an Australian of the Year finalist. In 1991 Lawrence was inducted into the Sport Australia Hall of Fame and in 1996 he was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame for his coaching and contribution to infant swimming. In 2012 Lawrence received an honorary doctorate from Griffith University following his involvement with Professor Robyn Jorgensen in the world’s most comprehensive study into early-years swimming.
Since 1988 Lawrence has continued to drive the extremely successful Kids Alive - Do the Five water safety / drowning prevention campaign for children under five years of age.
Lawrence debuted for Australia in the uncapped tour match against Auckland (L 6-11). He played two additional games on the tour - vs. East Coast (W 28-3) at Ruatoria, and vs. Mid-Canterbury (L 10-16) at Ashburton