Olympic legends Dawn Fraser and John Devitt have paid tribute to one of the Australian swimming’s unsung heroes, following the death of fellow Olympian Rosemary Lluka (nee Lassig).
Bundaberg-born-and bred, Lassig, died in Sydney on November 1 after complications caused by Alzheimer's disease. She was 76.
Lassig started her schooling at Bundaberg South State School and swam for Fairymead Swim Club under coach Tom McIntyre, at the age of eight, to manage her asthma.
She progressed to Queensland and National level under McIntyre’s guidance and then Rosemary Lassig went on to become one of the world’s best breaststrokers of her time, winning a silver medal with Fraser, Jan Andrew and Marilyn Wilson in the 4x100m medley relay at the 1960 Rome Olympics.
Lassig also swam the 200m breaststroke in Rome but was unplaced. Unfortunately, her better event, 100m breaststroke was not included on the Olympic program for women until 1964.
In January 1960 Lassig showed just how good she was over the two-laps smashing the world record for 110 yards breaststroke, in the Bundaberg 55 yards pool, clocking 1:21.3.
Fraser described Lassig as the perfect team member.
“The Americans certainly had a red-hot team in Rome and we knew we had to be at our best to challenge for a medal,” recalled Fraser.
“And that’s just what we did and our red-headed Rosemary swam beautifully to keep us in the medal hunt and if anyone deserved a medal out of those Games it was her.
“I am shocked to hear of Rosemary’s passing and my thoughts and prayers go to her family – she was a special person," Fraser said.
Lassig was undefeated in the 100 and 200m breaststroke at the Australian Championships between 1958 and 1960 and held every State and Australian breaststroke record in the books.
Australian team captain and 1960 Olympic gold medallist John Devitt remembers Lassig as one of the world’s best breaststrokers.
“She was ahead of her time, especially over 100 metres and was a perfect stylist with great skills and a powerful kick,” said Devitt.
“Rosemary was one of several outstanding swimmers to come out of far North Queensland in that era and without doubt Bundaberg’s most successful Olympian.
“She was certainly the number one breaststroker in the country in the late 50s and when the girls won that silver medal in the relay the little redhead was all smiles.”
Legendary former Courier Mail swimming writer, the late Frank O’Callaghan, penned many stories of Lassig’s record-breaking efforts, including the time she set the world 110 yards breaststroke record of 1m 21.3s at the Bundaberg 55 yard pool in January 1960.
O’Callaghan wrote at the time that this was 0.3sec inside the standard set by Federation Internationale Natation Amateur, the world governing swim body.
“Rosemary, 18, made the time when making an official solo attempt on the State standard of 1m 26.3s,” he said.
“She also lopped 2sec off her national 110 yards time set at the National titles at Hobart last February.
“She now holds every Australian and State senior breaststroke record.
“Rosemary, to whom a record is invariably a surprise, said after the race, “I didn’t feel I clocked that well, and yet I feel I could have done better if I had not gone so fast in the first lap.”
(She covered the first 55 yards in 37.4sec.)
In the same month she also smashed her fourth Australian swim record in the Queensland State championships at the Valley pool.
“In taking the 200 metre title in 2m 57.1s she broke the maximum time for a National record (2m 58s), which has been standing for 18 months,” O’Callaghan wrote.
“The time was set with the rule restricting breaststrokers to one stroke under water.
“Rosemary three times lowered the National 100 metres breaststroke record, finishing on Saturday in 1m 21.4s.
“Next to her all night was her shadow throughout all her record- breaking performances, 16-year-old Ipswich girl Jill Ruhle.”
Lassig also became the first Australian since Nancy Lyons to break 3 minutes for 200 metres breaststroke in January 1959.
“She did it for the third time when she beat her main Olympic rival, Jan Hogan, by three yards in 2m 59.5s,” wrote O’Callaghan in the Courier Mail, archived in the annals of Swimming Queensland.
“Nancy, Rosemary, and Jill Ruhle are the only Australians to have broken three minutes.”
O’Callaghan also wrote an account of Lassig’s National title in Hobart in February 1959.
“Red-headed Rosemary Lassig, 17, of Queensland, had a good victory in the 110 yards breaststroke title last night, finishing ahead of Jill Ruhle (Queensland) and Sylvia Ruuska (USA).
“Rosemary’s time of 1m 23.3s was only 7/10 sec outside the Australian record.”
Frank quoted Rosemary as saying: ”I was going for the record, but found the weather a bit cold,” she said.
Rosemary's family told the Bundaberg News Mail she was always proud of her Bundaberg heritage and had a passion to remain physically active throughout her life.
She was an avid tennis player in Sydney and a keen snow skier in Australia and overseas.
In 2000 she was a torch bearer at the Sydney Olympic Games.
The 1960 Rome Olympian is survived by her two children Trudy and Guy Lluka, grandson Max as well as cherished sister to Keith and Margaret Lassig, Ray and Valerie (deceased) Lassig, Bill Lassig and loved aunt of their respective families.
Swimming Australia's thoughts and prayers are with her family, friends and the entire swimming community at this time.