19 Apr 2019

Remembering Yvette, trailblazer for women

8:34 pm on 19 April 2019

by Sarah Cowley Ross*

Opinion - Yvette Corlett was an icon for New Zealand and a trailblazer for women in sport in our country.

Yvette Williams jumps her way to an Olympic Gold medal with a jump of 6.24m. Helsinki Olympic Games, 1952.

Yvette Williams jumps her way to an Olympic Gold medal with a jump of 6.24m. Helsinki Olympic Games, 1952. Photo: Photosport

Yvette, the first New Zealand woman to win an Olympic gold medal, died last week, aged 89.

Her ability to showcase her physical prowess across multiple events and sports gave young women like me the permission to dream big and chase mastery.

Like any pursuit of excellence, Yvette was extremely innovative in an era vastly different from what high performance sport operates in now. She wasn't afraid of hard work and was extremely dedicated to her training and goals.

Growing up as a sporty Kiwi kid, Yvette was one of my heroes.

She set the standard for us all to aspire to and for that I'm grateful.

I'm not sure how old I was when I first watched that iconic footage of Yvette jumping to win gold in Helsinki but I do remember thinking, 'Wow, she's actually flying through the air.'

She was 1cm off the world long jump record that day in 1952 but I think it's pretty special that when she finally broke the world record, she did so on New Zealand soil, in Gisborne.

As a heptathlete myself, I naturally drew inspiration from Yvette who was a star at several events.

I like that she wasn't just about the long jump. She was an accomplished thrower and national champion hurdler. She also represented New Zealand in basketball.

The heptathlon first appeared at the Olympics in 1984. I have no doubt if it existed in the 1950s, Yvette would have been the world record holder.

I feel lucky to have had several conversations with her supportive brother and training partner, Roy Williams, about their training - jumping off the sand dunes at the beach to work on technique, running with heavy work boots on to develop strength and lifting cement bags. It helped set the Williams family apart on sporting fields.

I was fortunate to meet Yvette a handful of times and I was struck by an aura about her. I found her to be gracious, humble and genuinely interested. She had mana.

Whilst Yvette was undoubtedly a champion in track and field, her impact on my life extends to both my parents.

My mum remembers my grandmother taking my Uncle Greg to gymnastics classes run by Yvette and her late husband, Buddy Corlett, at the St Heliers RSA in Auckland.

Mum was disappointed not be able to join in with her elder brother, but later got her chance at the Panmure Young Citizens Club, which Buddy and Yvette managed.

When Dad moved to Auckland from Tokoroa to attend university, he played for the Panmure Basketball Club - national champions in 1971. Buddy was the manager of that team.

In the close-knit basketball circles, Mum and Dad would later come across Yvette and Buddy's son, Neville, who, like my Dad, played basketball for New Zealand.

Yvette leaves a legacy not just in the athletics community but for all sports' fans. May we continue to be as brave and driven as her for many decades to come.

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