One giant leap for a golden sports heroine

HONOURED: Yvette Williams is made a Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit.
HONOURED: Yvette Williams is made a Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit.

Yvette Williams was our first female Olympic gold medallist - and two years after Helsinki she broke the world record for the long jump in Gisborne. Alex Fensome reports.

As soon as her feet left the ground, she knew she had cracked it.

Yvette Williams had woken up confident on February 20, 1954. Conditions were perfect in Poverty Bay and crowds of people had come to see her world record attempt.

LONG JUMP: Record-setter Yvette Williams hits the sand.
LONG JUMP: Record-setter Yvette Williams hits the sand.

In those days the long jump was known as the "broad jump", with distances measured in feet and inches. The record had been set in 1943 by the "flying Dutchwoman" Fanny Blankers-Koen. It stood at 6.25 metres (20ft 6in).

Williams had come close to breaking it in Helsinki when she won gold two years earlier.

"I was only one centimetre off at the Olympics - I knew I would be able to break it," she recalled this week.

HELSINSKI 1952: The way Wellington cartoonist Neville Colvin of the Sports Post saw Yvette William's Olympic success.
HELSINSKI 1952: The way Wellington cartoonist Neville Colvin of the Sports Post saw Yvette William's Olympic success.

The Gisborne athletics club put on a special meeting for Williams' attempt, even flying her parents from Dunedin to witness it.

Williams, now 83, said she had liked the runup at Gisborne when she competed there the previous month.

"They rolled the runup every day," she said. "It was a perfect surface. It wasn't like today, when they have all-weather tracks."

Bruce Cockbain was then a 19-year-old Victoria University student back home for the holidays. A member of the athletics club, he was roped in to help organise.

"She had been there a few weeks earlier and decided the runup was the best in New Zealand," he said. "It was grass in pretty sandy soil. She was very happy [with it] and wanted to have a go at the record."

Mr Cockbain, who now lives in Miramar, remembers "a couple of thousand people there, which would have been a fair proportion of Gisborne's population at the time".

Keen young Gisborne athlete Miriam Read (now Swarbrick), 15 at the time, also entered in the broad jump that day with Williams. The day she competed against her idol has never left her.

"I felt so short alongside her, she was quite tall, and a very impressive athlete," she said. "We thought we were pretty good . . . until she arrived."

The Olympic champion was relaxed enough to chat with the young jumpers who were there to make it a proper event.

The crowd was far bigger than any Swarbrick had seen before.

To Williams the big audience was a blessing.

"A big crowd was present, and I always performed well if there were spectators," she said.

"I was anxious to do well because of it being a special attempt."

The crowd hushed as she prepared for her first jump.

Swarbrick was standing with the other jumpers, watching.

"It was deathly silent because everybody realised something was going to happen," Swarbrick said.

Two flags were in the sandpit. A green one was set at Williams' national record, a few centimetres short of Blankers-Koen's world record, which was marked with a red flag.

Her hitch-kick technique perfected through years of practice, Williams sprinted towards the board, hit it and leapt.

"I knew straight away," she said.

She landed beyond the red flag, and Gisborne erupted in cheers. Swarbrick joined in. "There was this huge roar," she said. "It was better than being at the Olympics, it was just so exciting."

The Evening Post newspaper reported what happened next.

"Miss Williams' reaction was to bound from the pit and leap into the air in exaltation. Other competitors rushed to embrace her and officials threw their arms in the air and dashed to shake her hand. The spectators' joy found relief in wave after wave of cheering."

Everyone had to wait for official verification. There were six officials on hand to observe as the Gisborne club judges measured the jump. It was a record. Williams had jumped 6.28m (20ft 7 in)

"Mr Williams walked proudly into the arena and embraced his daughter, and as she walked from the track to the stand she was kissed warmly by her mother," the Post reported. "No athlete, no woman athlete anyway, has ever deserved success as Miss Williams deserves hers."

A few months later, she won gold in the long jump, discus and shot put at the Commonwealth Games in Vancouver.

Williams retired in 1956 after marrying Kiwi basketball and softball representative Buddy Corlett. The couple had four children and live together in Auckland.

She has an immortal place in New Zealand sporting history, not least for the Gisborne jump.

Miriam Swarbrick, though, remembers her for her modesty.

"What I most remember about Yvette was the humble and understated way that she did things. She was a lady. She was very gracious about what she did."