Page last updated at 16:34 GMT, Monday, 11 August 2008 17:34 UK

First champ 'would be thrilled'

Jo Manning
BBC news website

Irene Steer with Olympic team in 1912
Irene Steer (pictured far right) swam to victory with the 4x100m freestyle relay team in the 1912 Olympics. The team's chaperone is pictured in the centre.

The grandson of the first Welsh woman to win an Olympic gold medal has said she would have been "thrilled" by Nicole Cooke's cycling victory.

Irene Steer, from Cardiff, swam to gold in the 4x100m freestyle relay in the Stockholm games in Sweden in 1912, the same year the Titanic sank.

She anchored the British team as they set a new world record in the race.

It was the 119th anniversary of her birth on Sunday - when Cooke clinched the Women's Road Race in Beijing.

The victory made the Vale of Glamorgan rider only the second Welsh woman to have won an Olympic gold.

She talked more about the football and about people like John Charles than about her own achievements
William de Lloyd

Her triumph in a gruelling race in terrible conditions was the first time in 36 years a Welsh athlete has won gold.

But while Cooke was presented with her medal on a rainy roadside, Steer was presented with her gold by the King of Sweden, said her grandson William de Lloyd.

But she was an "incredibly modest champion", he added.

"We would never have known that she was good at anything. She talked more about the football and about people like John Charles than about her own achievements," he said.

"We would never have dreamed she was a world record holder."

Irene Steer
Ms Steer was an "incredibly modest champion", her grandson said.

Mr de Lloyd, a solicitor, said his grandmother had always been a big sports fan and had been taken to rugby matches by her father as a child. Later in life she followed Cardiff City Football Club, even driving to games in her eighties.

But before that, swimming was her number one sport, despite the difficulties she faced when even trying to prepare for races.

"It was a problem trying to find swimming baths in the area in which to train in those days, particularly ones that were big enough," explained Mr de Lloyd.

"She would swim in the Taff race in Roath Park Lake but I'm not sure how she managed it really.

"There certainly would not have been any lanes or starting blocks. It would have been easy to get lost in a large Olympic pool you would never have swum in before.

"We do know however that she used to be a breast stroke swimmer but a coach advised her to convert to freestyle about three or four years before the Olympics. He must have seen her talent in that stroke."

Mr de Lloyd said the 1912 Olympics was the first to allow women to take part in swimming contests, although they were limited to just the individual and relay freestyle.

Only 50 women took part in the 1912 games, out of 2,500 competitors.

And instead of a regular coach, the relay team were accompanied by a rather formidable looking chaperone.

Irene Steer's Olympic medal
Ms Steer's Olympic gold medal was presented to her by the King of Sweden.

Mr de Lloyd still possesses cuttings, photographs, the gold medal and even the pure silk swim suit his grandmother, who died in the '70s, wore to race in.

He explained that preparations for the Olympics were a lot less intense and rather more haphazard when his grandmother competed.

"Unlike the Olympics today when they arrive weeks ahead to help athletes prepare, the British team arrived in Stockholm just in time for the games," he said.

"They crossed the sea by boat to reach Sweden but every single person was ill except for my grandmother.

"They did not have any formal uniforms but you had to be smart. The team also had a chaperone rather than a coach.

"Her swimming costume was made of pure silk and had a GB badge on it. Without the badge, she could pass this swimming costume through her wedding ring. It is extraordinary really.

"The costume also had to have a bra and knickers thing inside because when it got wet it went completely see through."


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Steer became the British champion in the freestyle event prior to the Stockholm Olympics, even equalling the world record for the 100m distance.

According to the Welsh Sports Hall of Fame, only a collision in the heats of the 100m freestyle race in the same games robbed her of the chance of an individual medal.

She won the relay event with Jennie Fletcher, from Leicester, Bella Moore from Tynemouth and Annie Spiers.

Her swimming career was much more short lived than Nicole Cooke's life on a bike and Steer, the daughter of a Cardiff draper, went on to have four children - three daughters and a son who sadly died.

As a huge sports fan who was immensely proud of being Welsh, his grandmother would have incredibly proud of Cooke's achievements, said Mr de Lloyd.

"Nicole Cooke has put so much into it. She's already competed in two Olympics which is a long time in itself to be at the top of your game," he said.

"That sport is so gruelling and closely fought that sheer determination is the difference between winning and not winning.

"But it was difficult in a different way for my grandmother. Nothing was laid on for you. I don't think they got the help they have now and the training they did was limited.

"But that did not mean to say she didn't have a competitive spirit. She was a good egg."

In pictures: Gold medal celebrations
10 Aug 08 |  In Pictures
Olympic road race glory for Cooke
10 Aug 08 |  Olympics
Wales' Olympic roll of honour
31 Jul 08 |  Olympics


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