Australia won ten medals at the 1960 Rome Paralympics. Six of those medals belong to one of the most successful Australian athletes of all time. In this trip down memory lane, Siren brings you the story of Daphne Hilton.
You name it, I played it
Daphne Hilton was born in the New South Wales town of Harden-Murrumburrah in 1934. As a schoolgirl, she swam and played tennis and hockey.
‘You name, I played it,’ Hilton said in an interview in 2010 for an Australian Paralympic oral history project.
This voracious love of sport is mirrored in Hilton’s exploits at three Paralympics and two Commonwealth Games throughout the 1960s where she collected medals in athletics, swimming, archery, table tennis and fencing.
In 1951, 17-year-old Hilton sustained a spinal injury after a horse riding accident. She spent 10 months in hospital in Sydney following her accident before returning home to her family in Harden-Murrumburrah where life was difficult for a young woman now using a wheelchair. By 1959, Hilton was looking for better rehabilitation options and she to moved to the Mount Wilga Rehabilitation Centre in Sydney. It’s here where sport was introduced to her as a form of rehabilitation.
‘It was fantastic. It was absolutely an eye-opener for me and a new start in life. They introduced me to sport as a rehab and I excelled in all the sports and that’s how I came to be selected for Rome,’ Hilton said.
Where it all began
Hilton recalls learning about the Stoke Mandeville Games while at Mount Wilga. The precursor to the Paralympic Games, the Stoke Mandeville Games were already in full swing by the 1950s.
The brainchild of Dr Ludwig Guttman, the first Stoke Mandeville Games took place in 1948, on the same day as the opening of the Summer Olympics in London. In 1943, the British government asked Guttman to establish a specialist centre to treat the spinal injuries sustained by members of the British armed forces. Guttman believed that sport was an important method of rehabilitation and so, taking inspiration from the London Games, he organised a competition at the Stoke Mandeville Hospital.
Only a few years later, Daphne Hilton was boarding a plane bound for the Rome Paralympics. While Hilton says she was in the right place at the right time to be selected for the Australian team, her sporting prowess certainly helped.
Rome a roaring success
The 1960 Rome Paralympics may have been Hilton’s first games, but nerves were clearly not an issue. She collected two gold medals, in the breaststroke and crawl, three silver medals for archery and a bronze for shot put. Of the ten medals Australia won in Rome, six belonged to Hilton.
Hilton was the only woman in the 1960 Australian Paralympics team and the first Australian woman to compete at the Paralympics. Her presence and no doubt her success were instrumental in raising the profile of women with a disability in sport. She laid the foundations for a path many have followed. Including women like Louise Savage OAM.
Hilton recalled coming home to a civic reception in her hometown of Harden-Murrumburrah.
‘There was a car parade, an open car parade through the streets,’ she said. ‘And a dance [in] the evening and photographs being taken and everything of course. And that was all very exciting as well.’
Her success in Rome inspired Hilton to keep training. After returning to Sydney, Hilton would wake at 5am to begin her training before putting in a full day at work and then continuing to train after work. Her dedication would pay off.
Gold, gold, gold
At the first Commonwealth Paraplegic Games in Perth in 1962, Hilton won 8 gold medals and one silver medal competing in athletics, archery and swimming.
In only two short years, Hilton had made a huge impact. But there was more to come.
At the Tokyo Paralympic Games, Hilton came home with gold again, this time in Table Tennis. She also added a silver medal and three bronze to her tally, including a bronze for fencing.
‘Tokyo… was a marvellous trip. [It] was absolutely wonderful and was so well organised. It was the best Paralympics of the lot as far as I was concerned. They had great accommodation and great facilities and the pool and everything was marvellous,’ Hilton said.
After Tokyo, Hilton went to the second iteration of the Commonwealth Paraplegic Games, this time held in Jamaica in 1966. It was another incredibly successful games for Hilton, who took home 13 medals all up, including six gold medals in swimming, fencing, shot put, table tennis and pentathlon. She even set a new world record for the women’s 50m freestyle. In Jamaica, Hilton added wheelchair basketball to her repertoire.
‘Oh that was exciting. I was the only female—of course—in the male team. And I nearly brought the house down when I shot a goal,’ Hilton said.
Hilton’s last Paralympics would be the Tel Aviv Games in 1968. She won another silver and two bronze medals.
A last hurrah
Hilton retired after the Tel Aviv Games. She’d married her husband Frank in 1967 and the couple had two daughters in 1970. Here, Hilton set another record. She was the first paraplegic woman to give birth to twins in Australia.
But by the 1990s, Hilton was keen to get back into competitive sport. She came out of retirement and began playing lawn bowls. With the Sydney 2000 games approaching, it was looking good for a return to the big stage. But fate had other plans with lawn bowls removed from the Paralympics after the 1996 Atlanta Games.
Not to be dissuaded, Hilton went on to compete at the 2002 World Wheelchair Games where she won a silver and a bronze medal.
A lasting legacy
Hilton set a record that is unlikely to ever be broken in either the Paralympics or the Olympics. She won 14 medals in five different sports—athletics, swimming, archery, table tennis and fencing—across three Paralympic Games. It’s an incredible feat.
After Hilton’s death in 2016, Australian Paralympic Committee (APC) Chief Executive Lynne Anderson said ‘Hilton’s contribution to Paralympic sport was immeasurable’.
‘Daphne was a pioneer for Paralympic sport and women’s sport and she has left an incredibly powerful legacy,’ Anderson said.
‘Her outstanding athleticism was matched only by her versatility. She was certainly one of a kind.
‘Until Daphne started to compete, sport for people with a disability was completely dominated by men. Her achievements at the first Paralympic Games in Rome in 1960 demonstrated that Australia’s female athletes were perfectly capable of outperforming the men and opened the doors to other female Paralympic athletes to follow.
‘Even at a time when Paralympic athletes often competed in more than one sport, Daphne’s achievement of winning Paralympic medals in five sports was exceptional and it’s a record that I’m certain simply won’t be surpassed.’