Ex-dinner lady's life as a 1948 Olympian

Oxford Mail: Diver Esme Harris pictured in 1947 Diver Esme Harris pictured in 1947

To her neighbours, Esme Gibb looks like an ordinary grandmother, pottering around her Cowley garden.

But little do they know the pensioner was once the youngest British competitor at the 1948 Olympic Games in London.

Mrs Gibb, nee Harris, from Cricket Road, was one of only two athletes from Oxford at the ‘Austerity Games’ when she competed in the Women’s Springboard at the age of just 15.

Now 79, the former Oxford Central Girls’ School pupil said: “I sometimes look back and think ‘how did I do all that?’”

Mrs Gibb started diving at the age of six and practised at Temple Cowley Pools every day after school. Her father and coach, Evan Harris, paid her admission fee and she said her “knees would go blue” with cold.

After a successful trials in June 1948, the teenager – who juggled diving and gymnastics with school – found out she had reached the Olympics with just a month’s notice.

The grandmother-of-six said: “I remember being nervous. I used to bite my nails ’til they bled, I can tell you. When I first got to the pool I saw the Americans dive and thought ‘what am I doing here?’.”

Life as an Olympian in the 1940s was different to the luxury at the athletes’ village today.

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Mrs Gibb, who later worked for Pressed Steel and as a dinner lady at various schools, said: “We were on the fifth and sixth floors and so every time we wanted food, we’d have to walk all the way down and up the stairs. For some athletes, it wasn’t too good for their legs.

“We were given a lunchbox each day with sandwiches, crisps or a piece of cake and a drink. Of course, rationing was still in place then.”

She added: “But we had lots of laughs and funny experiences. I remember the opening ceremony, we were sweating in our stockings and blazers.

“And when the man ran in with the torch, we pushed forwards, all shouting and cheering as he ran round the track.”

Mrs Gibb came 13th in her event and in recognition of her achievement she was given a five-year pass to Temple Cowley Pools from the council.

She went on to marry fellow gymnast and diver Jack Gibb and had two children and six grandchildren. The couple live in Cricket Road and watched as the torch made its way down Cowley Road on Monday.

Mrs Gibb said she would be looking with interest to watch the young competitors this year.

She said: “It has changed. When we competed, we were all amateurs and nothing was about making money. I was so young, I didn’t realise how lucky I was.”

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