The Estonian refugee who helped mould a Kiwi legend

The recent passing of Yvette Corlett (nee Williams) is a reminder of how rare it once was for a New Zealand woman to win an Olympic gold medal. So rare in fact, that Williams’ success in 1952 was not repeated until Barbara Kendall won an Olympic gold medal 40 years later.

How then did Williams manage to accomplish this feat at a time when women and sport were far from synonymous? The story of her Olympic long jump success may well have originated in 1944, on an overcrowded ship in the Baltic Sea.

One of many desperate refugees squeezed onto this ship was a 28-year old petite, blonde named Emilie Tökke, or Emmy as she was known. She had grown up in Estonia, a country with the geographical misfortune to be sandwiched between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union during World War 2.

More fortunate, however, were the opportunities she’d had as a young woman before her country was overrun by successive waves of occupiers. A national sports champion herself, Emmy had graduated from university with a degree in physical education - something unheard of in New Zealand at the time.

While Kiwi women of the era were encouraged to learn housewifery, Emmy was a product of Estonian culture, where the grand narrative was that women were independent, strong and able to carry a man on their backs, should the need arise.

As the Soviet tanks rolled into Estonia for the second time during the war, a great many Estonians fled.

“We were packed into the hold of the ship like sardines for three-and-a-half days,” Emmy remembered. “It was very frightening as there were Russian and German submarines everywhere.”

Granted asylum in Sweden, Emmy worked as a physical education specialist. It was while teaching at a summer school that she crossed paths with New Zealander Jim Bellwood.

Bellwood had fought in the New Zealand army and was taken prisoner in Greece. After the war, he studied physical education at Loughborough College in England.

As a prisoner of war, Bellwood had vowed to devote his life, if he survived the ordeal, to “helping guide the surplus energy of youth into more healthy outlets”. 

His ideal partner for this challenge and, as it turned out , for life, was Emmy Tökke. After their marriage in 1947 at Loughborough, the Bellwoods sailed for New Zealand, and eventually settled in Dunedin.

Estonia had become subsumed by the Soviet Union, and athletes among the Estonian diaspora were no longer able to represent their country. Despite their considerable efforts, Estonian refugees were unable to persuade the International Olympic Committee to let them compete at the Olympics. Any sporting dreams Emmy may have had, she now channelled into developing others.

As one of the founding lecturers at the University of Otago School of Physical Education, Emmy’s considerable influence on New Zealand sport began.

The most notable and little known role she played was mentoring Yvette Williams.

Creatively applying the knowledge she’d gained overseas, Emmy and her husband devised innovative training systems for Williams, whose regime saw her running in army boots and lifting concrete blocks and sand bags strapped to her legs.

There were the now legendary training sessions in sand dunes, where Williams learned to imitate Jesse Owens’ hitch-kick technique.

Yvette Williams practising her long jump at the Olympic village in Helsinki, before she won gold. Photo: Getty Images.

Williams’ staggering natural talent and tenacity combined with the Bellwoods’ technical prowess proved to be a winning formula, and she became the top long jumper in the world.

But less than a year before the Helsinki Olympics, Emmy contracted a respiratory illness. Her doctor recommended that she leave the cold, damp climate of Dunedin and move somewhere warmer.

The Bellwoods relocated to Auckland. Knowing how indispensable they were to her athletics career, Williams followed early in 1952, boarding with her aunt and uncle in Devonport.

It turned out to be a smart move as later that year she famously jumped 6.24 metres in Helsinki, to be crowned the Olympic champion.

In an era where women weren’t expected to be sports champions, they certainly weren’t expected to be sports coaches. While Jim Bellwood’s role in Williams’ success has always been acknowledged, Emmy’s was sometimes overlooked.

Williams certainly never forgot her, crediting the lateral thinking of both Jim and Emmy Bellwood for harnessing her talent, and noting that their coaching and conditioning methods were way ahead of their time.

When asked who had inspired her, Williams once said “Jesse Owens and Mr and Mrs Bellwood”. (She never referred to them by their first names).

Jim Bellwood also acknowledged his wife’s contribution, writing after Williams became Olympic champion: “A guiding influence behind her development has been my wife Emmy. Her extensive European experience has provided many of the ingredients of Yvette’s meticulously planned training schedules.”

Williams retired from athletics after winning three gold medals at the 1954 Commonwealth Games in Vancouver. She married Buddy Corlett later that year, and said if she ever had a daughter she wanted Emmy Bellwood to train her.

The Corletts had three sons and one daughter, Karen, who was was duly enrolled in Emmy’s gymnastics club. By then, Emmy had returned to her first love - gymnastics - and become a leading New Zealand coach.

Karen Corlett, blessed with her mother’s genes and inspired by her legacy, blossomed under Emmy’s tutelage, going on to represent New Zealand in rhythmic gymnastics.

Emmy Bellwood coached countless artistic and rhythmic gymnastic champions and New Zealand representatives, including the Kiwi gymnasts who competed at the 1964 and 1984 Olympics. I, too, had the great privilege of being coached by her up until she passed away, in 1987.

Had the sailing ship that navigated the treacherous waters of the Baltic Sea not made it safely to Sweden, the history of New Zealand women Olympic champions may not have begun in 1952. Emmy Bellwood deserves a special place in the annals of New Zealand sporting history.

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