Britain’s forgotten Olympic hero - Raddy remembered

PUBLISHED: 08:57 05 August 2012

Paulo Radmilovic.

Paulo Radmilovic.

Archant

STOP people in the street and ask them to name Britain’s greatest ever Olympian, and you’d probably get a handful of Sebastian Coes, a smattering of Daley Thompsons, and a whole host of Steve Redgraves.

Indeed, Sir Steven Redgrave’s peerless medal haul rightly places him at the pinnacle of British Olympic achievement; his five golds across five separate games were earned through herculean feats of power, stamina and will.

But when Redgrave withstood a spirited Italian challenge in Sydney in 2000 to secure that fifth gold, few people would have been thinking of the man whose record he had just eclipsed – indeed, not many would have known his name.

And even fewer would know he hailed from Weston.

Yet Paulo Radmilovic fully deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as the Coes, Thompsons and Redgraves in discussions about Britain’s best.

After all, he represented our nation – and our town – with distinction at five Olympic Games either side of World War One, winning four gold medals.

In fact, had the 1916 Berlin games not been scrapped because of the conflict, its entirely possible ‘Raddy’ would have claimed a fifth gold of his own and guaranteed his own place alongside Redgrave in the record books.

Born in Wales in 1886 to parents of Croat and Irish descent, Paulo discovered an aptitude for water sports early in life.

First selected for the Welsh national water polo side at the tender age of 15, he also earned plaudits for his versatile racing, with wins in sprint and endurance contests, both in pools and open water.

He went on to complete at five formal Olympics, and one unrecognised games, earning golds in water polo and relay swimming, and could have extended that record further if Britain had sent a team to the 1904 games or the 1916 contest had gone ahead.

Alongside his international achievements, Raddy claimed English and Welsh titles and records galore in a remarkable competitive career spanning 20 years.

Mike Coles, former chairman of Weston Swimming Club and chief coach of the town’s water polo team, has explored Radmilovic’s history in detail.

He said: “Raddy has a claim to being Britain’s finest all-round aquatic Olympian.

“Certainly the Americans think so, as he was the first British swimmer to be recognised by the International Swimming Hall of Fame in 1967.

“He was the second water polo player (after American Wallace O’Connor) and the third Briton (after coach Matthew Mann and English Channel swimmer Captain Matthew Webb) to be inducted.”

Indeed Raddy’s citation said: “The British invented water polo, and dominated the game for 25 years, so it is fitting that their greatest star, (Paulo) Radmilovic make the Swimming Hall of Fame.

“He symbolises water polo greatness.”

Great, perhaps, but modest also – when he returned from 1908 Olympic success to a lavish civic reception, he dodged the fanfare by hiding behind some baskets at the railway station.

Mike continued: “His water polo skills were not confined to the national arena and he was a good club player with Weston-super-Mare, where the team played to huge audiences.

“Along with this 1908 Great Britain team-mate, Tommy Thould, he led Weston to wins in the English Club championships in 1906, 1907, 1921 and 1925.

“Raddy was extremely fast and powerful, and it is reported that the best shot ever seen was at the old Alstone Baths in Cheltenham - his famous ‘clock shot’.

“He gathered up the ball in his own half with his back to the Cheltenham goal and unleashed a backhand shot of the most amazing power.

“The ball crashed into the upright at the back of the shallow end goal, sprung back to the middle of the pool, hit the edge of the bath there and rebounded into the balcony where it brought the new clock situated there down.

“It is said that Radmilovic is still the only man in GB to shoot so hard that you couldn’t see the ball.”

After his retirement, Raddy remained a larger-than-life character in the Weston area, and continued to be involved with his beloved water sports as a referee.

A keen golfer, boxer and snooker player, he excelled at most sports, and acted as both landlord and security in protecting his new career as a publican at the Imperial.

Such was his local esteem and celebrity, when Raddy was married in Weston, horses were detached from his wedding carriage, and the newlywed couple were instead pulled through the town by local swimming club members.

Even as his years advanced, Raddy – now in his 60s – would continue to take his daily quarter-mile swim, often driving to Knightstone in his dressing gown.

Raddy died just a year after his Hall of Fame induction, in 1968. He was buried in Milton Road cemetery, and a seafront bar – Raddy’s – still bears his name today.

However, no direct acknowledgement of his feats is yet present in the town – but could that be about to change?

Almost a lifetime after Olympic hero Paulo Radmilovic died in 1968, efforts are now finally under way to create permanent memorial in his name in Weston.

Historian John Crockford-Hawley has been canvassing support for a blue plaque to be installed in the town to mark the London Olympics by celebrating the feats of the town’s greatest competitor.

He said: “Concerned that no action seems to have been taken to recognise the role played by Weston in the forthcoming Olympic Games I contacted the managing director of Butcombe Brewery and the chairman of Weston Swimming Club to see if they would be interested in supporting my proposal for a plaque in Paulo Radmilovic’s honour.

“I am delighted to say they are most supportive.

“Why the MD of a brewery? Because Radmilovic’s family ran the Imperial (Weston’s second oldest hotel) during the time when Paulo was winning his gold medals.

“The irony is that across the water both the Olympics Committee and Welsh Assembly have erected plaques and BBC Radio Wales has been here to interview me at Paulo’s graveside in Milton Road Cemetery.

“But he wasn’t actually resident in Wales during those momentous medal-winning years. He was here, in Weston.

But what have we done to record this fact? Nothing. Which is why I want to amend the omission.

“I’m pleased to say that the mayor, leader and deputy leader of Weston Town Council are very supportive so I don’t think the £500 cost of an official Blue Plaque will be a problem - but if it is, I’ll make up the shortfall.”

Weston's Blue Plaques

Weston-super-Mare's Blue Plaques

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