City park pays tribute to South Australia’s first Olympian

At Play Sustainable City People of Adelaide

In sporting circles there’s no greater accomplishment than to represent your country as an Olympian. In 1952, Denise Wangel (nee Norton) donned the national colours and secured her place in the state’s history books as the first South Australian woman to represent Australia at the Olympic Games. Today, her achievements in swimming have now been recognised with the naming of a North Adelaide park in her honour.

The official naming ceremony for what is now known as the Denise Norton Park / Pardipardinyilla (Park 2) – was held on Tuesday 30 April 2019. City of Adelaide Area Councillor Robert Simms officiated and Denise, now 85 years of age, was in attendance. Fittingly, this is the park that has been home to the Adelaide Aquatic Centre for the last 50 years.

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photo-icon Catherine Leo Photography

L-R: Denise Wangel (nee Norton) & City of Adelaide Area Councillor Robert Simms unveil the new park signage.

Born in Adelaide in August 1933, Denise’s career began as a five-year-old splashing around in the shallows of Glenelg Beach where her dad taught her to swim.

Her natural athleticism and enthusiasm for a challenge saw her dominate swim events through her young student days at Woodlands School. At 15 she came second in the annual “swim through Adelaide” raced in the River Torrens. First place was a man who beat her by just four seconds.

In 1950 Denise represented her state and country at the Empire Games (now known as the Commonwealth Games), winning gold in the 4 x 100-yard freestyle relay and bronze in the 440-yard freestyle.

photo-icon Courtesy of Denise Norton's family

L-R: Shirley Strickland, Denise Norton and Judy Joy Davies.

Her swimming career peaked at the ’52 Helsinki Games when, at 18, she represented Australia at the Olympics, alongside legends such as Marjorie Jackson. While she didn’t take home a medal, she did leave with memories to treasure for a lifetime.

"Participating in the Olympics made me very proud to be an Australian," said Denise - who went on to share with Adelaide Living a delightful personal account of her experience of the Opening Ceremony of the Games.

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photo-icon Catherine Leo Photography

Denise Wangel (nee Norton) at the official naming ceremony of the Denise Norton Park / Pardipardinyilla (Park 2).

"At the actual Opening of the Games, we lined up on a nearby oval, half a kilometre away from the stadium, with the girls in white dresses, white berets and ordinary shoes ready to march. We had been told that no cameras were allowed, otherwise we would be sent home.

"Then it started raining! After the rain stopped, we began marching to the main stadium, on a wide track through the forest, with Finnish soldiers on either side, and crowds of people watching.

"The problem was, we had to stay in step, all 90 of us. So we sang, 'Waltzing Matilda', and swung our arms in time. - but that meant marching straight ahead, through the puddles, and our thin shoes got wet.

"It was a strange feeling marching through the forest, then through a dark tunnel in the stadium and then suddenly coming out into the light with cheering crowds.

"We continued marching, still strictly in step. When we got to the podium, the manager blew a whistle, and called out 'Australia, Eyes Right'. The boys took off their hats and the team looked to the right, then kept marching around to the cheering crowds. We lined up on the Oval, all rather wet.

"Australia was one of the first to line-up. One hour later, the pigeons were released and the Olympic torch, carried by Finnish Marathon runner Paavo Nurmi entered the stadium."

Denise Wangel (nee Norton) - recalling her experience of the Opening Ceremony of the 1952 Helsinki Olympic Games

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photo-icon Catherine Leo Photography

L-R: Ingrid Wangel (Denise's daughter) and Denise Wangel (nee Norton) at the park's official naming ceremony.

For Denise's family and friends especially, the naming of this park in her honour was a wonderful moment. 

“My grandmother worked very hard at her training and had great achievements in a time when women were not particularly recognised for athletic or other achievements, so it's very special for her and for us to have this honour now," said Rebecca Griggs, a granddaughter of Denise.

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Inside the Adelaide Aquatic Centre.

Originally called the Adelaide Swimming Centre and an open-air facility, the Adelaide Aquatic Centre opened in 1969 and was enclosed with a roof in 1985. With about 10,000 kids learning to swim here every year, naming the park within which this family-friendly facility sits after one of our State’s swimming greats is particularly fitting.

“I am thrilled that I can do something to promote the Park Lands to make people realise how important they are to everyone."
Denise Wangel (nee Norton)

As well as the Adelaide Aquatic Centre and lots of shady trees and grassy areas to picnic or relax, the Denise Norton Park / Pardipardinyilla (Park 2) has plenty to offer people of all ages and abilities in the way of other sport and recreational activities. The park’s also home to the popular Bush Magic Playground, has an off-leash dog area for spending time with your fur-babies, as well as cricket and tennis facilities.

Find out more about the Denise Norton Park / Pardipardinyilla (Park 2) and many other natural spaces in the city in the Adelaide Park Lands.

Article by

Skye Murtagh

Skye Murtagh

Skye is passionate about sharing stories from all walks of life. When she's not busy weaving beautiful words together, she's singing a line or two from her favourite song.