The following is adapted from an article written for The Age, by Fiona Rutkay in 2008 entitled ‘Jumping through the hoops’
Several mornings a week, two-time Olympian Cecilia Burke can be found on the banks of the Yarra River sharing a lifetime of kayaking experience with her friends and ‘students’. At 81 she still trains on the river, attends her local gym and inspires many with her zest for life.
Burke first sat in a kayak on the Danube in Budapest when she was a high school student. “I loved it straight away,” she says in a Hungarian accent. By the time she was 21, she competed in the K1 for Hungary in Helsinki (1952) and at the 1956 games here in Melbourne.
Politics and sport collide
In October 1956, Hungarian citizens started a revolution against the communist government and occupying Soviet forces. Cecilia Hartmann, as she was then, and her teammates watched the revolution from Budapest’s Red Star Hotel. “Even athletes from the Olympic team went to the police stations, got guns and fought.”
The Russians withdrew just before the Olympic team departed for Melbourne. “We left Budapest by bus,” says Burke. “We were carrying the Olympic flag, but people spat at us, they spat on the Olympic bus. They were angry. They said the Olympians had everything, but they didn’t know how hard we were working for the sport. Other people wished us good luck.”
On a stopover to Melbourne, the athletes found out what had happened back home — the Russians had returned. “We could hear it on the radio. Our prime minister was saying: ‘We are dying, please help us.’ At that time, the West said, ‘We are going to help you,’ but of course nobody did.”
In Australia, Cold War tensions were on display at the opening ceremony. “When we arrived we had the biggest cheer,” says Burke. “When the Russians came, the crowd booed. In Australia everyone was afraid of the communists. Of course I was upset about what the Russians did in Hungary, but I also knew that I didn’t have anything to do with it and neither did those Russian sportspeople.”
While preparing for her race, Burke tried to find out if her family was safe. Her two-year-old son was in Budapest and her husband was fighting with the revolutionaries. “It was very hard. To win a race you need all the energy and the enthusiasm just to do the one thing, but I was really worried. The race came and I did my very best, but of course the fire wasn’t there.” Burke finished fourth in the 500-metres singles.
Another story of endurance and strength
Two weeks after returning to Hungary, Burke escaped the country and joined her husband, who had fled to England. She thought that once she was with her husband she could get her son out of Hungary, but the Hungarian government rejected her applications for six years. “Almost every night I dreamed that I held his hand and we escaped, but when I looked down he wasn’t there.” When Burke’s eight-year-old son finally arrived in England, she convinced her husband they should migrate to Australia.
After raising her family, Burke took up kayaking again to become Australian champion at the age of 46. In 1977 she went with the Australian kayaking team to Budapest to train for the World Championships. “I sat down on the river bank. Some people say that the Danube smells terrible, but to me it smelt wonderful.”
A new home
Cecilia has coached scores of paddlers over the years, including several who have gone to compete at Olympic and world level. She completed the Murray Marathon each year for decades, achieving individual over-age records on several occasions.
Until recently Cecilia helped recreational paddlers learn the basics and then the finer points of kayaking, becoming a friend to so many members of the club.