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A national treasure who should have been a Dame
Yvette Corlett was determined but humble; generous and inspirational. A Kiwi pioneer.
But one thing that Corlett - one of our greatest athletes - was not, was a Dame. And that, Barbara Kendall says, is a tragedy.
“She so deserved to be made a Dame while she was alive,” says windsurfing legend Barbara Kendall. “She had so much mana and humility – maybe too much. She didn’t blow her own trumpet.”
Kendall was only the second New Zealand woman to win an Olympic gold medal – 40 years after Yvette Williams won our first in the long jump sandpit at Helsinki’s massive Olympiastadion at the 1952 Olympic Games.
After Kendall clinched her gold at the 1992 Barcelona Games, Corlett (Williams’ married name) was one of the first people to come to Kendall’s house in the Auckland suburb of Bucklands Beach to congratulate her. They hadn’t met before, but Corlett lived ‘just next door’, in Pakuranga.
Over the years Kendall helped “four or five” times to nominate Corlett to be made a Dame Commander of the New Zealand Order of Merit.
Corlett passed away on Saturday night – 12 days shy of her 90th birthday - without that damehood.
“She really paved the way for New Zealand women athletes. She was a trailblazer," Kendall says. "The fact that it took someone 40 years after her to win a gold medal shows how incredible her achievement was.”
Born in Dunedin on Anzac Day, 1929, Yvette Winifred Williams would become a national treasure.
I was fortunate to meet Corlett a number of times, often sitting down to talk with her about a glittering career that remains unmatched in New Zealand’s sporting history. She was always matter-of-fact, modest but unequivocally proud of what she'd achieved.
Not only was she an Olympic champion and world record-holder in the long jump, she was a Commonwealth medallist in the shot put, discus and javelin. She held 21 national titles in five different events, including the 80m hurdles.
By the end of 1954, the extremely versatile Corlett was ranked the world’s greatest all-round female athlete.
She also represented New Zealand in basketball, which, she told me two years ago, was her favourite of all sports – “I loved the team environment more than competing on my own.”
Although her parents weren’t heavily involved in sport, they certainly had an influence on Corlett’s athletics prowess. Her father, Tom, won hand grenade throwing competitions in his battalion during World War I, while her mother, Winnie, obviously passed on her leaping genes, as a national highland dancing champion.
Corlett scored her first athletic victory at primary school – winning the inter-school skipping race.
But it wasn’t until after she left school at 16 that she discovered track and field. She'd go down to Dunedin's Caledonian Ground to train, taking her younger brother, Roy, with her - so he could run after the discus and toss it back to her.
Roy Williams went on to win gold in the decathlon at the 1966 Empire Games in Kingston, Jamaica. He was probably Corlett’s greatest supporter.
As a young athlete in Wainuiomata, two-time Olympic long jumper Chantal Brunner was inspired by Corlett’s achievements, and remembers the tales Roy told her about his sister’s intense, and innovative, training regime.
“She was truly ahead of her time in terms of training,” says Brunner, who’s in Lausanne this week for the IOC Athletes Forum. “I enjoyed the stories Roy told about Yvette’s training at the Auckland Domain, which included lugging bags of concrete up the hills to develop her strength.”
Corlett also ran in army boots during her lunchbreak from her job as a cashier, and hoisted sandbags with her feet to strengthen her abdominal muscles.
One of the most iconic photographs of Corlett shows her leaping off the sand dunes at St Clair Beach in Dunedin, with her coach Jim Bellwood on the sand below. It was where Bellwood – a prisoner of war survivor – taught Corlett the ‘hitch kick’, developed by the legendary US athlete Jesse Owens. It’s like running in mid-air to get more distance.
Her dedication quickly paid off. In her first major international event - the 1950 Empire Games in Auckland - she won gold in the long jump (as well as silver in the javelin). She then set her sights on the Helsinki Olympics.
She could still recall, when well into her eighties – after surviving heart surgery, bowel cancer and a brain abscess – those Olympics and the day she won her momentous gold medal at the age of 23.
Her first event in Helsinki’s 70,000 seat Olympic stadium was the discus, where she finished 10th. Three days later, she returned for the long jump, but she wrenched her knee in the warm-up.
In pain with sprained ligaments, she qualified in sixth place. In the final, her first two attempts were fouls, and she just snuck through to the last six jumping off for medals.
Stripping down to her black singlet with the silver fern, and the black shorts she had sewn herself, Corlett flew in her next jump. At 6.24m, it was a new Olympic record and just 1cm short of the world mark. Her rivals wouldn’t get close.
Kiwis in the crowd jumped the fence and ran into the middle of the stadium to perform a haka; her team-mates draped a New Zealand flag over the nation’s first-ever female gold medallist, and carried her on their shoulders.
Corlett received her gold medal from fellow New Zealander, Sir Arthur Porritt, and a bouquet of pink carnations – she brought one home, which still remains pressed in a book. Her celebrations were put on hold until she’d competed in the shot put, finishing sixth.
When she arrived home, she was honoured with a parade and fireworks in Auckland, and as her parents and brother drove back to Dunedin, people in towns along the way waved flags and handed her flowers. “It was all a bit overwhelming for me. I never craved the limelight – I was just happy to perform on the field,” she said.
Two years later Corlett set a long jump world record of 6.29m in Gisborne. She went to the 1954 Commonwealth Games in Vancouver and won gold in three events - the shot put, long jump and discus (she competed in the last two events at the same time, changing her shoes six times).
As Olympic heptathlete and LockerRoom writer, Sarah Cowley Ross, says: “If heptathlon had existed in her day, I have no doubt she would have been a potential world record-holder.
“She set the standard for women in sport in our country, and for me personally. I looked up to her as a ground-breaker, a multi-talented athlete and a woman of huge mana.”
Corlett retired from athletics at just 25. She had met Buddy Corlett, a New Zealand softball and basketball representative, and they married and had four children.
All showed huge sporting potential - Neville played basketball for New Zealand, Peter was an All Black triallist, Karen represented her country in rhythmic gymnastics and Bruce coached rugby in Wales.
New Zealand Olympic Committee chief executive Kereyn Smith says Corlett made an impact on so many people. “I was always so struck by her personal effect on modern-day athletes. She had a humble aura and a wonderful connection with people,” she says.
“And she also gave so generously to the community and across so many sports.”
Once her competitive career was over, Corlett had continued to give back. She was a PE teacher, and coached and helped run the Pakuranga Athletics Club. She taught gymnastics, coached basketball and worked with Special Olympians.
She told me if she was born in a later era, she would have liked to have been a professional athlete. “We just competed for the love of sport. I always dreamed of going to a university in the States, but in our day, the pinnacle of your career was to be chosen for the Olympics or Commonwealth Games.”
Corlett keenly followed the career of Dame Valerie Adams, through her eight Olympic and Commonwealth medals.
Adams, who recently gave birth to her second child, said last night that Corlett had been a great inspiration who would be sadly missed – “by the athletics community, and New Zealand. What an amazing woman to leave such a huge legacy behind.”
Corlett was a fighter. The brain abscess robbed her of speech, but she learned to talk again.
The last time I visited her, she asked me to make her lunch – cheerio sausages, buttered bread and a hot cross bun. At 87, she had just come home from a yoga class.
In an international athletics career spanning just eight years, Corlett won an Olympic gold medal, set Olympic and world records and won four golds (and one silver) at the Empire and Commonwealth Games. Twice she was awarded the Halberg Sportsman of the Year (as it was then known), and in 2000, she was named New Zealand’s athlete of the decade 1950-59.
She was twice honoured by the Queen – receiving an MBE for services to sport in 1953, and made a Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit, the second-highest royal honour, in 2011. The highest honour was, sadly, missing from her name.
“It's a shame," says Smith. "But that takes nothing away from the awesome woman that she was, and the mark that she made."
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