Flashback: When New Zealand won its first gold at the athletics world champs

Beatrice Faumuina draped in the New Zealand flag after winning gold at the world athletics championships in Athens in 1997.
THE DOMINION

Beatrice Faumuina draped in the New Zealand flag after winning gold at the world athletics championships in Athens in 1997.

It was a 66.82-metre discus throw that put New Zealand athletics  on the map.

Beatrice Faumuina made history on August 7, 1997, when the 22-year-old became the first Kiwi to win gold at the athletics world championships.

The win had far-reaching consequences, influencing generations of Kiwi throwers, said New Zealand throws coach Debbie Strange, who was there at the time.

Ellina Zvereva of Belarus, left, and Natalya Sadova of Russia flank Faumuina at the medal ceremony.
THE DOMINION

Ellina Zvereva of Belarus, left, and Natalya Sadova of Russia flank Faumuina at the medal ceremony.

"Other New Zealanders instantly realised if Beatrice can do it, I can".

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It seems only appropriate that it was in Athens, birthplace of discus throwing, that Faumuina made her mark.

Faumuina in 2010 at the Capital Classic twilight athletic meet in Newtown Park, Wellington. She retired later that year.
MAARTEN HOLL/STUFF

Faumuina in 2010 at the Capital Classic twilight athletic meet in Newtown Park, Wellington. She retired later that year.

The Aucklander of Samoan descent entered the competition hot off the heels of a stellar performance in Oslo the month before, throwing a New Zealand record of 68.52m. 

"We knew then, she was in great shape," remembers Murray McKinnon, who was writing for the New Zealand Herald at the time and was at the Athens competition.

Her Oslo performance saw her move up the rankings to world No 1 ahead. But if Faumuina felt any pressure as she prepared for her final throw at the Olympic Stadium in Athens, she didn't show it.

Faumuina's win captured in The Dominion, on Saturday, August 9, 1997. "She was prepared to work extremely hard to ...
THE DOMINION

Faumuina's win captured in The Dominion, on Saturday, August 9, 1997. "She was prepared to work extremely hard to achieve in the sport," her coach Les Mills said.

She was smart about the competition and not overawed by the occasion, Strange remembers.

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Despite the pressure she was under, "she thrived on it that day".

THE VICTORY:

Faumuina in Hamilton in 2005.
IAIN McGREGOR/STUFF

Faumuina in Hamilton in 2005.

​Faumuina fouled her first two throws, which threatened to end her competition,The Dominion Post reported on August 9.

But she had the right stuff to keep herself composed to make the final throw.

"When she made the big throw, it was like, oh wow this is amazing, it was stunning," Strange remembers.

The Dominion gave front-page coverage to Faumuina's historic win.
THE DOMINION

The Dominion gave front-page coverage to Faumuina's historic win.

"To win like she did shows she has that special X-factor that makes champions," Strange said at the time.

Faumuina outmuscled tough competition from Eastern European throwers Ellina Zvereva (Belarus), the 1995 world champion, and Natalya Sadova (Russia). 

The 66.82m throw was 92cm further than her closest rival and saw her take out the gold, making her the first New Zealander to win an event at the world championships, which began in 1983.

Faumuina speaking at the Kea Inspire event in Auckland in 2015. She has recently begun a new job as New Zealand trade ...
John Anthony / Fairfax NZ

Faumuina speaking at the Kea Inspire event in Auckland in 2015. She has recently begun a new job as New Zealand trade commissioner and consul-general in New York.

Faumuina's mother was at the event to cheer her daughter on. "It was really special that her mother and aunts could be there to watch it, it was just amazing," Strangesaid. 

After the award ceremony, "Beatrice was desperate to see her mama".

But a late night of press interviews meant they didn't get back to their accommodation until late – giving the New Zealand team time to decorate their door with congratulations and messages from home.

Faumuina takes her final throw at the 2006 Commonwealth Games in Melbourne. She finished fourth, having won gold in the ...
IAIN McGREGOR/STUFF

Faumuina takes her final throw at the 2006 Commonwealth Games in Melbourne. She finished fourth, having won gold in the previous two games in 1998 and 2002.

The aftermath 

Strange didn't realise it at the time, but Faumuina's win sent a message to the world to watch out for New Zealand.

"She was certainly a leader of the new revolution of throwers in New Zealand."

In the years since, a steady stream of throwers has emerged, including four-times world champion shot putter Valerie Adams, and Tom Walsh, who just a few days ago scooped gold in the shot at the world championships in London. 

Strange said Faumuina's victory was also an important moment for female and Pasifika athletes.

She went on to secure more medals, including two golds and a silver at separate Commonwealth Games events. She was honoured with a New Zealand Order of Merit in 2005.

Faumuina retired from sport in 2010, and has started a new role as trade commissioner and consul-general in New York.

 - Stuff

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