The New Zealand Herald
3. YVETTE CORLETT
Olympic trailblazer Yvette Corlett became the first woman to win Olympic gold for New Zealand when she won the women’s long jump in Helsinki in 1952.
Corlett’s mark of 6.24m at the 1952 Games was also an Olympic record — and two years later, she leaped a further 4cm to break the women’s long jump world record.
With no New Zealand success in 1948 at London, hers was the country’s first Olympic medal since Jack Lovelock stormed to 1500m glory at Berlin 16 years earlier, and the only gold by a Kiwi female until boardsailor Barbara Kendall triumphed in 1992.
Dame Yvette Corlett, nee Williams, joy is palpable as she leans forward atop a dais at Helsinki in 1952 to receive a gold disc from Sir Arthur Porritt — later to become Lord — the country’s first athletics medallist from 1924 New Zealand’s first female Olympic champion.
“The New Zealand supporters came down to the track and carried me around shoulder-high,” she told the Herald in 2016, before removing the beaming disc from its bespoke box.
“To see the flag go up and hear the anthem played, that was the highlight of my career.”
No New Zealand podium success at the 1948 “Austerity Games” in London meant her medal was the country’s first since Jack Lovelock stormed to 1500m glory at Berlin 16 years earlier.
Corlett died aged 89 in 2019. In post-World War II New Zealand, Corlett’s sporting story was a spur to battlers in a fledgling welfare state yet to fully benefit from the 1950s boom in living standards.
After two no-jumps in Helsinki, Corlett moved one of those markers back six inches, as per the empirical measurement of the era. If her third attempt overstepped she would have exited the competition. A hemisphere away, New Zealanders willed on their prospective champion through radios in the heart of winter.
“I had to register one,” Corlett said. “But I feared I would jump again and everybody back home would be so disappointed.
“Fortunately my third jump was legal, which put me fourth. The Russian [Aleksandra Chudina] led, but the top six could have another three jumps. On the fourth jump I hit the board. The judge put out his [illegal] red flag initially, then changed it for the [legal] white.”
Her 6.24m arc, a centimetre short of Fanny Blankers-Koen’s world record, led the competition. Corlett would break that mark with a 6.28m leap at Gisborne in February 1954, but this was needs-must.
Composure was crucial in trying circumstances. Darkness is rare in Finnish summers due to the northern location, but the firing of a human cannonball at 11pm each night further limited the prospect of sleep for her and roommate Jean Stewart, the bronze medal-winning backstroker and fellow Otago Girls’ High School alumna.
Corlett also faced the scenario of practising while a couple of Russian Cold War caricatures, in black trench coats and hats, scribbled notes pitside.
“I thought ‘I’ll show them what I can do’ and jumped as far as I could.”
Conversely, Corlett saw little of her Soviet rival outside the competition. Chudina refused to get changed with the rest of the female long jumpers.
Strained knee ligaments threatened to hinder Corlett’s cause. Britain’s physiotherapist had to be found because New Zealand didn’t have one.
“The sand was at a lower level than the pitch as I ran through the pit. The knee became quite sore so the team chaperone contacted the English masseur. He came over and it was much easier after that.”
Adult destinies can often be traced to pivotal childhood moments.
Corlett was born Yvette Winifred Williams in Dunedin, the daughter of Tom and Winnie. Her brother Roy became a Commonwealth Games decathlon champion in Kingston in 1966 and a respected sports journalist.
Father Tom offered a hint at the family’s pedigree as a grenadethrowing champion in the Australian army during World War I. Mother Winnie was a highland dancing champion. Meld in the siblings’ competitiveness on the front lawn in anything from hurdling to wrestling, and a champion recipe emerged.
“Life was different,” Corlett says. “There was no TV or cellphones to distract us so we had to make our own fun.”
You don’t have to be Hercule Poirot to decipher some of the other clues to her career path.
“My grandad had a neatly manicured flower garden and we used to try jumping across from one side to the other. I remember him saying ‘don’t ruin my flowers’ so you had to get the jump right. They also had a big pear tree which I loved to climb.
“When I was about 10, I also used to run from the doorway to our bedroom and leap on to the top bunk.”
In 1948 Corlett met fitness instructor Jim Bellwood at an athletic training school in Timaru.
When the Bellwoods moved to Auckland, Corlett followed, staying with Aunty Ruby and Uncle Alan in Devonport. She used their spare room to train.
Corlett’s career was short by modern athletic standards. After marrying Buddy Corlett in 1954, she retired before the Melbourne Olympics.
The pair met when working at Auckland’s YMCA, had four children, and were married until his death in 2015.