Which NZ women have had the biggest impact on the Olympics?

Marise Chamberlain

800m bronze, Tokyo 1964

Athletics equality was still a dream at this point – 800metres was the longest women’s race at the 1964 Games. Chamberlain was a true pioneering superstar who set world records and remains the only Kiwi woman to have won an Olympic track medal.

Her Olympic cause was helped because a North Korean regarded as the world’s fastest was banned due to an IOC kerfuffle. The race was won by Brit Ann Packer in world record time.

“I wanted so much to stand on that dais at an Olympics,” said Chamberlain, who still lives in Christchurch.

“I thought about all those years of sweat and grime, the terrible conditions, all the help I’d got. I burst into tears, and cried and cried.

Jean Stewart

100m backstroke bronze, Helsinki 1952

Dunedin swimmer Stewart wanted to make a stand for women’s sport by winning a medal, which she achieved thanks to a judging decision after recording the same time as a Dutch rival in the final.

She was a pioneer, particularly in the use of weights and interval training. The latter was thanks to her advisor, a man named Bill Wallace, who developed his theory from horse racing techniques.

Stewart was part of a glamour sports couple, marrying her only 1952 Olympic swim teammate Lincoln Hurring. Son Gary Hurring – keeper of her medal – was also among New Zealand’s best.

In 2016, she admitted surprise at finding no other Kiwi woman had stood on an Olympic swim dais.

“It’s so sad. We’ve had so many good swimmers,” she said.

Jean Hurring passed away in 2020, a year after her Helsinkiroommate and longtime friend Yvette Williams, the long jump gold medallist. They were the only women in that small 1952Olympic team.

Yvette Williams

Long jump gold, Helsinki1952

The outstanding candidate as this country’s greatest all round athlete. Williams (later Corlett) set an Olympic record in Helsinki where she also had top 10 finishes in shot put and discus. She was also terrific in javelin, hurdles and of course pentathlon.

“White hot of spirit, ice cold of nerve…she was the consummate athlete,” New Zealand’s
Athletes of the Century author PeterHeidenstromwrote.

Williams was a national treasure, her shortish career in a male dominated world an inspiration for great female athletes to come. Helsinki was her peak, and she received a rapturous reception from adoring New Zealand crowds on return.

“To see the flag go up and hear the anthem played, that was the highlight of my career,” she said of those Olympics, a couple of years before her passing in 2019.

Valerie Adams

Shot put, gold Beijing 2008, gold London 2012, silver Rio de Janeiro 2016

Adams’ Olympic medal haul highlights an extraordinary career of world dominance.

About the only hiccup was in Brazil, where American Michelle Carter’s massive last round throw upset the applecart. The disappointment of only winning silver in London was eventually resolved, with Nadzeya Astapchuk of Belarus disqualified on a positive drug test.

Adams – of Rotorua origins – is a true giant of New Zealand sport, a contender as our greatest Olympian.

“Hopefully this will further encourage young people that they can do anything … if they put their minds to it,” she said, when made a Dame in 2016.

“I know the responsibilities that come with wearing the black singlet and representing my country. I take that seriously.”

Eliza McCartney

Pole vaultbronze, Rio de Janeiro 2016

The 19-year-old McCartney sprang from virtually nowhere to capture the nation’s heart, becoming the youngest ever Olympic pole vault medallist.

She only made her senior international debut that year at the world indoor athletics championships in America, and had been targeting Tokyo in 2020 for a medal. She equaled her personal best 4.8m in Rio, winning bronze on a countback.

It was just the fourth Olympic field medal won by a Kiwi woman, a rare New Zealand success in one of the core events.

As quick as she rose, injury now threatens to bring her career down. But whatever happens, the joy that bronze medal brought won’t be forgotten.

“My cheeks are so sore and my eyes are red from crying. I’m so happy,” she said in Rio.

Sarah Walker

BMX silver, London 2012

Walker’s medal list is almost as long as her injury list, which is saying something.
The 32-year-old Bay of Plenty bike star never stopped pushing the limits, and paid a heavy price.

Determined to become an Olympian, she was about to try track cycling when BMX was confirmed as an Olympic sport. After finishing fourth in 2008, London saw her on the dais.

The hugely popular Walker has straddled two worlds in a way, as the establishment welcomed in new sports to keep the Olympics relevant.

And the old Olympic spirit, the one which is often hard to find, is alive and well in a new age star who has become an athletes’ commissioner on the IOC while she pushed for a Tokyo spot, just missing out.

“I gave it everything – winning the silver felt like gold,” Walker has said.

“I still remember standing on the start hill before the final and being like ‘this is really cool’.”

Barbara Kendall

Boardsailing, gold Barcelona 1992, silver Atlanta 1996, bronze Sydney 2000

One of the most enduring images from the Barcelona Olympics in 1992 is the sight of a beaming Barbara Kendall celebrating at the top of the podium.

At 24, the boardsailing great cemented her place in New Zealand Olympic history, becoming the first woman to win gold since Yvette Williams 40 years earlier.

She completed her set of Olympic medals by winning bronze in Sydney in 2000, becoming just the third Kiwi behind Mark Todd and Simon Dickie to win medals at three separate Olympics.

She returned to the water after giving birth in 2001 to claim her third world title in 2002in Thailand at the age of 36. She competed at five Olympics. Retired in 2010 after 24 years at the top of her sport.

Sarah Ulmer

Cycling individual pursuit gold, Athens 2004

Ulmer smashed the world 3000m individual pursuit record twice at the 2004 Olympics in Athens.

Earlier that year she won World Cup races in Mexico and Sydney, and set a world record 3min 30.604s at the world championships in Melbourne.

Ulmer then eclipsed her own mark with a 3:26.400 in qualifying at Athens, and to cap it off, whizzed round the velodrome in 3:24.537 to win gold against Australian Katie Mactier. She remains the only New Zealand woman to win an Olympic cycling gold medal.

Sophie Pascoe

Swimming three gold and one silver Beijing 2008 Paralympics, three gold and three silver London 2012, three gold and two silver Rio de Janeiro

New Zealand’s greatest ever Paralympian who can still add to her legacy in Tokyo. Her medal record is staggering – 15 at the Paralympics with nine gold. Pascoe was New Zealand’s youngest Paralympian in Beijing, aged just 15, and produced stunning results in the pool with three gold medals and a silver.

Since then she has been the face of the New Zealand Paralympics team, always stepping up on the big stage with multiple titles at the world championships, Pan Pacifics and the Commonwealth Games to go with her Paralympic success. Became the first para-athlete to carry the New Zealand flag at the Commonwealth Games.

Georgina Earl and Caroline Meyer

Rowing double sculls, gold Athens 2004, Beijing 2008

In 2008, Meyer and Earl achieved New Zealand Olympic immortality at Beijing with the triple double: twin sisters double sculling to victory at consecutive Games.

The only time the tandem — then operating under the household name ofEvers-Swindell — led was at the finish. Coach Richard Tonks quipped that it was “the slowest overtaking move” he had witnessed.

The 2004 victory at Athens was a doddle by comparison. The twins were favourites to become New Zealand’s first women rowing gold medallists on the back of two world championships. They won by 0.99s, leading from the start.

Lisa Carrington

Canoeing gold and bronze, Rio de Janerio 2018, gold London 2012

New Zealand’s greatest woman kayaker, Carrington has owned the sprint K1 200m discipline since leaping to prominence winning the world title in 2011.

She won back-to-back Olympic golds and bagged silver in the blue riband 2016 K1 500m in 2016. Add in a pile of world championship medals and she stands among the great paddlers.

On her back has come a gifted group of women kayakers since the Rio Olympics. You can at least partly chalk that rise in popularity among young women down to the Bay of Plenty woman who has blazed a path to the top for others to follow.

Neroli Fairhall

Archery gold Brisbane Commonwealth Games 1982

Fairhall was a true groundbreaker – winning gold in the 1982 Commonwealth Games and becoming our first disabled Olympian, at the 1984 Los Angeles Games where she finished 35th. She also competed in four Paralympics.

Tributes flowed when Fairhall passed away in 2006, with Disability Issues Minister Ruth Dyson saying: “She did what many thought was impossible.”

One story goes that a smart alec Australian cynic was put in his place when he asked her if she thought it was easier shooting sitting down than standing up. She replied she had no idea; she’d never shot standing up.


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