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Dame Yvette Corlett leads honoured sportwomen

It’s fitting that trailblazer Dame Yvette Corlett leads the line-up of 11 New Zealand women in sport recognised in this year’s Queen’s Birthday Honours list.

Dame Yvette Corlett (nee Williams),  Dame Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit.

Just days before she died, Yvette Corlett discovered she was to become a Dame. And she was thrilled by the honour.

Her brother, Roy Williams, says the Olympic long jump champion received a “confidential letter from the government” - advising her that she would be made a Dame Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit - around 10 days before she passed away on April 13.

On April 12, the Queen approved the damehood for Corlett, one of New Zealand’s greatest athletes.

“It’s very, very important to our family,” Williams says of the Olympic gold medallist’s damehood. “It’s sad Yvette won’t get to receive it. But she knew about it, and she was very happy about it.”

Although it took a while for the recognition to come, 89-year-old Corlett thoroughly deserved to be a dame – as a trailblazer for New Zealand women in sport.

Her achievements ranged from winning gold in the long jump at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics – the first Kiwi woman to do so – through to her tireless volunteering in a multitude of sports.

A New Zealand representative in basketball, she also collected a clutch of Commonwealth medals, in long jump, shot put, discus and javelin. By the time she retired from competition in 1954, she was ranked the world’s greatest all-round female athlete.

A mother of four, Corlett also found time to create the Pakuranga Athletics Club (the home club of Dame Valerie Adams). A PE teacher, she also taught gymnastics, coached basketball and worked with Special Olympians. She umpired kids cricket every Saturday for a decade.

She fully committed herself to her voluntary roles. "For 40 years she was a judge for the NZ Herald Junior Sports Awards and never missed a meeting,” Williams says.

Corlett had been honoured before - becoming a Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Order of Merit (MBE) in 1953, and a Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit (CNZM) in 2011.

“Since then, there’s been a strong body of opinion that Yvette should be made a dame,” Williams says. Athletes like Barbara Kendall and Les Mills publicly called for it. “I give a lot of credit to [Sports Minister] Grant Robertson and [Prime Minister] Jacinda Ardern for pushing it through.”

Williams believes his sister would have shone in any sport, such was her pure athletic ability and her dedication to training.  “As a young girl, she loved horses and could have become a top equestrian,” he says. “She always said if she’d been born in Scandinavia, she would have been a ski jumper. She had no fear.”

New Zealand is fortunate she was born here.

Two of the great contributors to netball in New Zealand - Yvonne Willering, CNZM, and Dame Lois Muir. Photo: Getty Images

Yvonne Willering, Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit

Yvonne Willering laughs when people ask her if she’s still involved with netball. “It still keeps me busy,” she says.

Few netballers have given back as much to their sport as Willering, whose career spans 50 years - from outstanding player to umpire, to coach and now international coaching advisor.

Previously made an ONZM in 2002 for her services to netball, her ongoing work here and around the world has earned the former Silver Fern defender a higher honour. Always modest about her achievements, Williering says her latest recognition is simply “all for netball”.

After coaching the Silver Ferns in 51 tests from 1997 to 2001, she’s continued to coach and teach other coaches.

After working with nations like Fiji, South Africa, Hong Kong and Singapore, Willering has had more involvement with netball in New Zealand again. She’s on Netball NZ’s high performance advisory panel, brought in after a damning review into the sport last year.

The young Dutch girl who arrived in New Zealand by ship, without a word of English, is now a forthright radio commentator. She was made a life member of Netball NZ last year.

Next month, Willering heads to Liverpool for the netball World Cup where she will run a coaching seminar. She’s a member of the International Netball Federation’s coaching advisory panel, and delivers defensive workshops to international coaches.

 “I’m very honoured to receive this,” she says of her CNZM. “But at the end of the day, it’s all about netball. And bringing the game in New Zealand to the fore.”

Black Ferns captain Sarah Hirini was "blown away" by the email advising her of a Queen's Birthday honour. Photo: Getty Images. 

Sarah Hirini, Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit

Sarah Hirini was at the gym when she received a “cryptic” email alert. It wasn’t until she got home and asked her husband, Connor, to read it that they both realised she was to be made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit.

“I was blown away,” the Black Ferns Sevens captain says. “It's a huge honour to be on the Order of Merit. I'm really surprised because I feel I'm so young in my career and I don't really play rugby thinking about these kinds of things.”

Hirini has been a leading figure in the rapid evolution of women’s rugby. She led the Black Ferns Sevens to victory in two World Cups, collected a silver medal at the 2016 Rio Olympics and gold at last year’s Commonwealth Games. In 2017, she was women’s player of the year at the NZ Rugby Awards, and voted best female athlete in Oceania by the Association of National Olympic Committees.

She’s recognised for her leadership on and off the field, and the strong work ethic and commitment she’s brought to both the sevens and 15s teams.

“To be named alongside some amazing New Zealanders is humbling and a huge honour. I'm really happy, and I know it means a lot to my family as well,” she says. 

Yvonne Loader, Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit

World record holder Yvonne Loader has been recognised for almost five decades of commitment to gliding in New Zealand.

Since learning to fly in 1972, Loader has set a string of national gliding records for altitude, distance and speed – and a world record in 1988 for the greatest height gain by a female glider (33,506ft) that still stands today.  

She’s been heavily involved in the Omarama and Canterbury gliding clubs, instructing and towing for over 30 years, and is known as a champion fundraiser - especially for safety equipment. A former president of the NZ Association of Women in Aviation, she’s introduced many women to flight.

Naomi Shaw, Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit

White Sox legend Naomi Shaw has made an indelible mark on New Zealand women’s softball community.

Shaw played for the White Sox from 1978 to 1986, and captained the team to their only world title in 1982. She’s volunteered to play, administer and coach the Saints club in Hutt Valley for more than 55 years.

After taking up coaching in the 1980s, she was assistant coach at three world championship, and head coach at another three. During her reign as White Sox coach from 2010 to 2014, they rose to No. 8 in the world.

Adrienne Begg, Queen’s Service Medal

Since the 1960s, Adrienne Begg has been a sports advocate in the town of Kirwee, west of Christchurch. She has been heavily involved in hockey, squash and tennis both locally and in Canterbury.

Maree Bernasconi, Queen’s Service Medal

.A familiar face at the Pukekohe Netball Centre, Maree Bernasconi’s ongoing service to netball in the Franklin district stretches back to the early 1990s. She’s held roles from executive president to coaching co-ordinator, and has also played a key role in raising money and securing sponsorship for other local sporting organisations.

Lyn Pellow, Queen’s Service Medal

Lyn Pellow has been involved in Auckland netball for three decades, across all aspects of the game. Although she retired from her part-time administrator role in 2005, she is still an active volunteer at Auckland Netball, including helping grade more than 900 teams at the start of each season.

Ann-Marie Searle, Queen’s Service Medal

A community stalwart in Southland, Ann-Marie Searle has been a player, coach and administrator of badminton for more than 50 years. A key player in the Oteramika Badminton Association, she has also coached award-winning junior teams for Southland.

Margaret Swinburn, Queen’s Service Medal

This year marks Margaret Swinburn’s 60th year of involvement with the Greymouth Athletics Club. She began as an athlete in 1959, and has since been an official and an administrator. Her special interest has been luring young people into athletics; she’s the liaison for the annual West Coast schools champs featuring more than 3000 children.

Elizabeth Thomas, Queen’s Service Medal

A long-serving leader in Canterbury’s equestrian community, Liz Thomas set up the Kowhai Residential School of Riding in 1969. She’s helped thousands of riders achieve their riding goals, but also helped troubled young people make a rehabilitative connection with horses. She’s also been coach of a NZ pony club team.

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