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Wally Jarvis – super swimmer

Posted by SCe Comments Off on Wally Jarvis – super swimmer
Steve and John (Wally) Jarvis at Piha,  circa 1938

Wally Jarvis with his little brother John, Piha, circa 1938

I heard a lot when I was growing up about Wally Jarvis, one of the best swimmers at the Piha Surf Life Saving Club.

An exceedingly tall young man – 6 feet 6 inches ” Wally (Walter James) was one of three elite Jarvis swimmers who enriched surf  clubs along the West Coast: Wally at Piha, brother Sidney at Karekare, and, after the war, their much younger brother John at Muriwai.

The Jarvis family hailed from Dunedin, where Harry Jarvis, himself a keen competitive swimmer, coached his children to follow in his footsteps.  As a young teen Wally emerged as a star, breaking a New Zealand intermediate record when he swam 50 yards in 25 1/3rd seconds in 1932.

After winning several titles, Wally was disappointed in 1934, when he was passed over for the New Zealand Empire Games team, the argument being that he was too young, despite another swimmer of similar age having been allowed to go.

In 1935, representing Otago at the NZ Swimming Championships, Wally carried off the 100 yards and 220 yards national titles with times of 55 2/5 seconds and 2 minutes 23 4/5 seconds respectively (both NZ records – the latter stood for 13 years). He later established a New Zealand record in the 50 yards for a time of 23 1/5 seconds, which was only 3/5 second outside the world record.

Wally (left) with Otago swimming team

Wally (left) with Otago swimming team

He also excelled in the surf, taking the national surf swim and the beltman’s titles in the following year, and was a top performer in water polo.

He and backstroke champion Peter Matheson toured Australian in 1936, and Wally smashed the Victorian 50 metres freestyle record.

About 1935, Jarvis got a job as a cadet with the Auckland Harbour Board when his family came to Auckland.  In the same year he joined up with the Piha surf life saving club and added to that club’s ranks of fine swimmers and beltmen.

In 1938 Wally worked his passage to England to join the RAF on a short-service commission. Suffering from air sickness, he was forced to leave, but when war broke out, he joined again, being posted to flying control duties. He was given a station of his own and made a squadron leader.

He married an English WAAF and during the latter years of the war was involved in RAF experimental radar work. He later worked for the air force invasion force and controlled the first Allied advanced airfield in Normandy in 1944.

Wally Jarvis was one of many men whose sporting career was interrupted by the war. No swimming championships were held during the war and by the time Wally returned it was too late to resume his swimming career, though he did give pool demonstrations showing his outstanding freestyle swimming stroke.

After the war, Wally enrolled as a student at Otago Medical School where he qualified as a doctor. His wife, Anne Priscilla, was also a doctor and both worked at Kaitaia, before the Jarvis family settled at Howick in Auckland. He kept contact with his Piha surf club friends and from time to time visited Piha. In the mid-1960s, Wally separated from his wife and later remarried. He changed his name to Steve, and became involved in Scientology. When he contracted liver cancer, he went to the States seeking a cure but this was unsuccessful. He died in Australia in 1990.

Wally’s story would not be complete without mentioning his brothers’ outstanding sporting careers. Sidney was also a young swimming star, but John outshone both his older brothers. He learned to swim in the Hauraki Gulf and the Parnell Baths, though despite being called a swimming prodigy, apparently once got caught in the surf at Piha, and my father, Tom Pearce, pulled him in. John won many national titles in New Zealand and surf life saving on both sides of the Tasman.  He retired at the age of 21.

In the late 60s he joined the Muriwai surf club and started competing again, winning many titles in surf life saving though he was by then in his 30s.


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