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Bobby McGregor, the Falkirk Flyer 1964

Bobby McGregor

© SNSpix

Scottish successes in Olympic swimming are few and far between. Ceylon-born David Wilkie's achievements in 1972 and 1976 are notable, given his smashing of the world record in the Montreal 200m breaststroke final, but his was the first gold medal won in 68 years of competition.

However it falls to a resident of Falkirk to give Scotland its earliest, and then-greatest, achievement in the aquatic arena - step forward Robert Bilsland McGregor, MBE.

A native of Helensburgh, born in 1944, Bobby had a good bloodline calling him towards a career in the water. Father David was a leading member of the water polo team which travelled to Berlin in 1936 - the only Scotsman in the squad. As if that were not enough to convince McGregor junior to pursue a piscine path, David was also the baths master of Falkirk.

With his father's position in the town, Bobby was able to get to the baths before the public started their weekly Saturday morning queue for the 8am opening time. More often than not, the lucky few who got in early would find Bobby already there, completing yet another swift 25 yards under instruction of father David, carefully monitoring his handheld stopwatch.

It came as little surprise that with a supportive taskmaster behind him, Bobby would win the Falkirk Primary Schools championship a year after his first taste of the pool, aged nine. That taste of success spurred the youngster into a daily routine which saw him in the pool by 7am each day, and in turn led McGregor to the Scottish junior freestyle champion over 100 yards.

His first international call-up came shortly thereafter - representing his country against Wales and Ireland at the age of 16. A charging swim brought him another 100-yard championship, only just missing the national junior record held by fellow Scot, Ian Black.

Bobby McGregor


But father David was not satisfied, proclaiming "I know he's an outstanding junior, but I want him to become an outstanding senior." Two more years as a first-pick for the Scottish squad saw him travel to the British Empire Games in Australia, and his advancement was such that two years later saw the world record within his grasp.

Just weeks before he was due to travel to the 1964 Olympiad in Tokyo, the British championships put him right at the forefront. A time of 53.5 seconds in the newly-lengthened 110-yard freestyle final, showed how much progress the "Falkirk Flyer" had made - the new record time was quicker than his time in the shorter 100-yard final only two years previously.

Bobby McGregor


However in Tokyo. McGregor was unlucky enough to share the pool with one of the greatest freestylers of all time, United States prodigy Don Schollander. Schollander was more of a 400-yard specialist but like many swimmers, used the shorter races as preparation for their favoured distance. In punishing conditions, McGregor's time of 53.5 seconds, enough to win in Cardiff two years previously, was just a tenth of a second off the mark, leaving Schollander to win the first of four medals at that games.

A lunch for the Olympic team at Buckingham Palace led the Queen to console her country's swimming captain on the agonising close finish. "I watched your race on television," Her Majesty told him. "It was very exciting and if you'd had a longer finger you would have won."•

McGregor refused to rest on that silver medal though, and enjoyed the greatest period of his career two years later. During the space of five weeks in 1966, he stormed to gold at the European Championships in Utrecht, the Netherlands, shortly after clinching the same medal at the Jamaica-based Commonwealth Games.

His crowning glory came at the British Championship, where he shaved two tenths of a second off his 1964 world record. These achievements led the Queen to award Bobby the MBE for services to swimming in the following New Year Honours.

Bobby McGregor


However time had taken its toll and in a sport well known for its youthful performers, the then 24-year-old travelled to Mexico City's 1968 games outside the favourites for the newly-metric 100 metres freestyle. A fourth-placed finish provided a sad but dignified close to a wonderful career.

McGregor retired from the sport to pursue the career he had trained for over and above his regime in the water - a degree in Architecture had been attained at Strathclyde University some time previously. It was testament to the drive and Scottish stubbornness of such a young man, that he was able to combine the rigours of Olympic-class sport with the necessary training for a lifelong professional career.

Written by: Dave Low

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