Olympics

Marise Chamberlain: where is she now?

In the first of a series tracking down sporting greats, our only female Olympic track medallist, Marise Chamberlain, reminisces with Sarah Cowley Ross about the last Tokyo Olympics, and why Sir Peter Snell got her new shoes.

Her training was brutal, painful and exhausting; run by a gruff, but caring, Latvian coach who’d escaped the Russian army. And Olympic bronze medallist Marise Chamberlain isn’t certain she’d do it all again.

“I remember every excruciating, miserable, cold, wet, frosty training session,” the now 84-year-old Chamberlain says. “We did it because we had the passion, but I don’t know if I could do it all again.”

Today, the woman who remains New Zealand’s only female Olympic track medallist enjoys her daily walk on Brighton Beach in Christchurch, even through lockdown.  

She never ran again after she tweaked her achilles as she led the field in the 800m final of the 1966 Commonwealth Games – tragically stumbling across the finish-line and missing a medal.

Chamberlain says she’s been as good as gold alone in her bubble in the last six weeks, in regular contact with her two daughters who live on the outskirts of Christchurch, and with her church community.

“I still feel, as old as I am, that I still have energy for life,” she says.

Chamberlain won her bronze medal in the 800m at the 1964 Olympics – the last time the Summer Games were held in Japan. She’s supportive of the decision to postpone the Tokyo Olympics until 2021, saying that the athletes need to be able to compete without the fear of contamination from Covid-19.

She’s as sharp as a tack when she talks over the phone about her life - the very different training regime and conditions she endured during her career, and her vivid memories of competing at an Olympics in Tokyo.  

Raised in Christchurch, Chamberlain grew up in what she describes as a ‘truly positive’ environment.

Her parents Gladys and Len Chamberlain fostered a dream of being the best – and for Chamberlain, it was running.

And the best she was – setting five world records across the 440 yards to the mile throughout her career, winning silver in the 800m at the 1962 Perth Commonwealth Games and her bronze at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

Chamberlain vividly recalls at the age of 11 lining up for a handicapped sprint race at the school fair.

Her father, Len, was in charge of handicaps and deliberately put his daughter well at the back of the pack. Despite a determined effort, Chamberlain finished second.

“I was so upset that I got beaten,” she remembers. “I said to my father ‘You did that so I wouldn’t win’.”

To which Len Chamberlain told her you can’t always win at life and it’s a lesson you must learn. “He said to me ‘If you can’t take being beaten in a nice manner, then it’s better you never put your feet on the track again’,” Marise says.

Armed with the lessons from her parents, she decided if she was to come second it would only be to someone better than herself.

Chamberlain was coached by Valdy Briedis, a Latvian-born immigrant who competed at the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games in decathlon.

With Briedis’s experience as an athlete and coach (he’d been the head coach for the Dutch athletics team at the 1948 Olympic Games before coming to Christchurch), Chamberlain thrived on the uncompromising and brutal training sessions.

She remembers the often gruff and volatile nature of her coach, but knew her parents trusted Briedis, who saw her potential and wanted to help her unleash it.

“Dad said ‘You believe in him and you’ll get there’. I never then doubted what Valdy said after that,” she says. 

To this day, Chamberlain is still grateful for the incredible commitment Briedis made to coach her. He became a Canterbury athletics legend, also coaching three-time Olympic thrower Val Young (who finished fourth at both the 1960 and 1964 Olympics in the shot put).

Chamberlain reflects on Briedis’ horrific life, having escaped from the Russian army and fleeing to the Netherlands, and says it certainly made her appreciate the freedom of living in New Zealand.

“I used to think I must have been such a terrible athlete because he was always growling me,” she says. “He dictated my whole life. I was under his regime.”

Her punishing workouts were completed after a full day’s work as a typist, and she had to endure them on dark, damp and uneven Canterbury sportsgrounds.

“I had to rely on the Lyttelton train going through to the port to throw a big light across the whole ground, so I could get the layout and see where Valdy would be with his little torch at the finish,” she says.

“The only time my feet went onto cinders or a clay track was when I competed at the Olympic or Commonwealth Games.”

When it came to stepping on the track at major events, Chamberlain describes it as a wonderful feeling – like she was “dancing across the ground”.

In 1960, Chamberlain did not get her chance to dance; although she’d qualified for the Rome Olympics, she wasn’t selected. “Missing out nearly devastated me. I was good enough to be there,” she says.

“I crossed the line and I was totally overcome with the emotion of everything I'd been through." 

When she was finally selected to run at the Olympics four years later, Briedis stayed behind in New Zealand, so she was assisted by the late, great running coach Arthur Lydiard.

“Arthur would pick me up for my morning mileage run around the Meiji Shrine, as he didn’t think it was safe for me as a woman to be running alone,” she recalls.

In the Tokyo afternoons, Chamberlain would complete her track workouts with the Lydiard squad - including the late Sir Peter Snell, who went on to win double gold on the track in the National Stadium.

It was Snell who looked at Chamberlain’s training shoes and was shocked to see the backs cut out of them and well past their best.

Chamberlain suffered from chronic bursitis in both ankles throughout her career and had altered her training shoes to relieve pressure on the bursae.

“Peter said ‘Come on, I’ll get you a pair of shoes… because you simply can’t wear those’,” she says.

Snell took Chamberlain to the shoemakers who were outfitting him and they immediately threw her precious old shoes in the bin. 

“All I could think about was ‘I really need these shoes’,” she says. “They finally gave them back after a lot of persuasion and I kept using them in training.”

It was in the 800m final that all those horrendous training sessions came to fruition – Chamberlain crossing the line in third behind Ann Packer of Great Britain (who set a world record in the race) and Maryvonne Dupureur of France, in second.

“I crossed the line and I was totally overcome with the emotion of everything I'd been through,” she says. “I gave it absolutely everything.

“I just thought that when the next Games rolled around there would be another [New Zealand track] medallist. It’s quite phenomenal that there hasn’t been one.”

It took over 30 years for another Kiwi to break Chamberlain’s 800m national record, set in 1962, of 2m 01.4s. It was bettered by Toni Hodgkinson, the 1996 Olympics 800m finalist, who still holds the record of 1m 58.25s.

Chamberlain had surgery on her ankles after the Tokyo Games and wanted the 1966 Commonwealth Games to be her final race. But after leading the entire race, her achilles went with 40 metres to go, she fell and eventually crossed the line in sixth.

“That was my tragedy and the way I didn’t want to end my career,” she says.

Back at home, Chamberlain was advised by her orthopedic surgeon that in order to live a full life, it would not include running. “I’ve never run again,” she says.

But she hasn’t let that cloud her life: “I’m very grateful for the lovely things that have happened to me.”

* Angie Petty is the last New Zealand woman to run the 800m at an Olympics, competing in the heats at the 2016 Rio Games.

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