Shelagh cotton – ‘Lanka’s Greatest Sportswoman’

Shelagh Cotton (Nee Gaddum) who has died aged 75, was perhaps Sri Lanka’s greatest sports woman and certainly one of the most prolific in the range of her success. The third of five attractive daughters of Reginald Gaddum, who was born in Ceylon, was a tea plantation manager, Member of Parliament from 1948 until 1957 and Chairman of Aitken Spence, Shelagh too was born and lived all but a few years of her life in this country. She was an extremely athletic person with a fierce competitive spirit, a wholesome personality and an iron will to excel. Swimming, cricket, hockey, tennis and golf in that order earned her international representation in swimming, playing against Australian and British visiting teams in cricket, womens’s Ceylon champion at golf, national level competition in hockey and a club champion at tennis. On top off all this she was an excellent shot, be it game bird or clay pigeon shoots.

Her forte was swimming, when as a teenager at the Colombo Swimming Club pool she was seen as part-hydrofoil churning through the water. She was soon winning national championships and qualified to represent Ceylon in the last of the Empire games held in New Zealand in 1950. Swimming was emerging as a national sport at that time with swimmers like Shelagh, the Arndt brothers, Vivian Blaze, Geof Marks and Ian Gunewardene, blazing new trails.

Moving from teenager to debutante her sporting activities stepped up to tennis in which she won the Queen’s Club and Garden Club Ladies championships. She never won the Ceylon Ladies Championship, that was preserved for Doreen Sansoni, but she played in Ceylon teams against international tennis stars visiting this country. She also played hockey at a national level with the famous Ceylonese womens players of the 1950s like Pat Weinman, Joan Raymond and Joan de Saram. In all these sports she was a model of precision and control - she was a perfectionist. Contortion, he gift of many athletes, evidently ran in the family as her sister Pat was a contortion dancer and together with Shelagh they did such a dance act at the Silver Fawn.

Golf came later, after she had married Richard (Dick) Cotton, a senior plantation manager at Shaw Wallace and Hedges, who was also born and raised in Ceylon. Dick was a golfer, so Shelagh, ever seeking new sporting pastures, took to it like a duck to water! She was renown for the sweetness and grace of her swing but hit the ball far with a force that belied her slim frame. Like all champions she was cool, calm and confident, but sometimes prone to attacks of the jitters which lost her some finals. She was Ceylon Ladies Champion from 1966 to 1969 and, after a lapse, again in 1976, the pinnacle of golfing merit. During a period of living in retirement with Dick in the UK, Shelagh gave her all to the game and achieved a handicap varying between 2 and 3 played in many open competitions there.

The writer first saw Shelagh as a young swimmer himself at the Colombo Swimming Club pool where the Royal College team were allowed to practise at certain times on certain days at this exclusive European only club. It was the only competition swimming pool in Colombo at the time. Shelagh and Dick were keen rugby fans so we got to know each other well in 1950s when I was playing for the CR and FC. Dick who was a Ceylon diving champion was trying his hand, not too successfully, at rugby for the CH and FC. At golf our friendship continued together with Shelagh’s sister Ruth who was married to champion golfer Mike Robinson.

Sadly for Shelagh and Dick they lost a son, Christopher, who was killed whilst serving in the Rhodesian police. It was a tragedy she took hard but stoically as the loss of a child is the greatest burden a woman has to bear. Her husband Dick pre-deceased her succumbing to cancer when they were back in Sri Lanka for their final retirement.

Being such a complete athlete Shelagh did not take kindly to the disabilities of age but she dealt bravely with these ailments until her peaceful death.

She is survived by her son Ian living in Cananda and four sisters Lysbeth, Moyra, Patricia and Ruth.

The few around today who remember Shelagh’s achievements mourn the passing of one of our greatest sporting talents of a generation ago.

Norman Gunewardene
Colombo 5