One giant leap for womankind
Yvette Corlett’s influence in New Zealand athletics extended well beyond that of her recordbreaking achievements.
‘‘Yvette Williams was a trailblazer and a true beacon of what is possible for women in sport,’’ said New Zealand Olympic Committee president Mike Stanley.
As Yvette Williams she won the women’s long jump at the 1952 Helsinki Olympic Games. Corlett, who died in Auckland on Saturday aged 89, was also a world record holder in the event.
‘‘Her place in New Zealand’s history is unique and her contribution to sport has opened doors. She . . . is one of our greatest ever athletes, she will be missed by all who knew her,’’ Stanley said.
Auckland Athletics president Murray Mckinnon said Corlett also took a keen interest in the career of double Olympic shot put champion Valerie Adams.
‘‘She was a gracious lady. She kept in touch with Valerie Adams right from the early days, and contacted her every time she won something,’’ Mckinnon said.
She set up an athletics club in the eastern suburbs of Auckland, where the Yvette Williams Track is to be found.
Analytical Wellington sports writer Peter Heidenstrom controversially rated Williams as his New Zealand Athlete of the Century, ahead of the great Peter Snell, who won three Olympics golds across two Games.
Competing at a time when there were fewer athletics events for women, Corlett shone in most. In the modern era, she would have been a world-class heptathlete.
Her younger brother, Roy Williams, won the decathlon at
the 1966 British Empire and Commonwealth Games in Kingston, Jamaica.
Born in Dunedin on Anzac Day 1929, she played several sports at Otago Girls’ High School, making the top netball team and going on to play for Otago and the South Island.
Her late husband Buddy Corlett, who died in 2015, was a national basketballer.
Her interest in athletics was set on fire after an evening visit to Otago Ladies Amateur Athletics Club one evening.
While most famous as a long jumper, her first national title was for shot put in 1947. She won her first long jump title a year later.
Corlett formed a winning combination with coach Jim Bellwood, an uncompromising former soldier and POW, who she always called Mr Bellwood.
He modelled her technique on American legend Jesse Owens, and Corlett won the long jump at the 1950 Auckland Empire
Games, where she came second in the javelin.
Corlett moved to Auckland to train with ‘‘Mr Bellwood’’ boarding with an aunt and uncle, who set up a gym for her in a spare room for morning training sessions. Her lunch time outside her job was spent running up and down hills to build strength in her legs, after work she would meet Bellwood for three hours’ training.
All her hard work paid off on in July 1952, when she leapt 6.24m – an Olympic record – to win gold in Helsinki.
On 20 February 1954 she claimed the world record in Gisborne, leaping 6.29m. It stood for 18 months.
At the 1954 Empire Games in Vancouver, she won gold in the discus and long jump, setting Games records in both. She also won the shot put and made the 80m hurdles final.
She retired from competition in 1956, working as a physical education teacher, and having four children.
She coached athletics and became involved with Special Olympians – people with intellectual disabilities.
Corlett was Sportsman of the Year in 1950 and 1952 and made an MBE in 1953.
She was one of the first inductees into the New Zealand Sports Hall of Fame in 1990 and voted Otago Sportsperson of the Century in 2000.
Yvette Corlette, below with her gold medal from the Helsinki Olympics, took a keen interest in the career of Valerie Adams, left.