Athletics: 'Sprinting housewife' set her sights high

By Cameron Leslie

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As Ian Babe simply puts it, Colleen Brunker was a "special lady. We're going to miss her".

The champion runner, who was known during the 1960s as "Whangarei's sprinting housewife", died unexpectedly last Thursday at the age of 81. Brunker is survived by husband Cliff and children Phillipa and Derek.

Born in Thames in 1931, Brunker (nee Pierce) set a great example to all young athletes with her dedication to the sport, while at the same time competing for enjoyment.

In 1942 the Pierce's shifted to Dargaville where Brunker began running where, although she did not treat running seriously at the time, she managed to win the intermediate and senior championships at Dargaville High School.

In those times Eileen Tobin was Northland women's sprint champion, and it was not long until Brunker was chasing the champion to the tape.

About 1952, Brunker started training seriously and began winning Northland sprint titles like clockwork - and continued doing so until aabout 1965.

There was a lull for two seasons in running for Brunker when her two children were born, but being the athlete she was, she still exercised by swimming.

During those years she acted as a handicapper and selector for the Northland Athletic Centre. Then it was back to running.

In 1966, Brunker looked back over her sporting career, which was still going on at the time, with the Northern Advocate and advised: "You must not be frightened to work hard at anything. It gets results."

Looking back over the years, Brunker was not certain how many Northland titles she had won. But, she reckoned, the most exciting and satisfying athletic meeting for her was the Northland championships at Kaikohe in 1958 when she broke four Northland records.

Before the Northland Athletic Centre was formed, Brunker ran at several New Zealand meetings for Auckland - during which time she was part of a relay team that set a national record, also in 1958.

In June 1969, aged 37, Brunker was awarded the British Empire Medal for her dedication and contribution to Northland sport.

Since this time, Brunker took up veterans racing and was crown a New Zealand age group champion time and time again.

More recently, she's had problems with her foot after an operation which cut a few nerves. Close friend Babe has known Brunker since the 1950s and describes her as always being friendly, supportive and passionate about the activities she was in.

"She was especially focused on communication," said Babe.

"With people she'd greet them with a friendly manner.

"She was clearly interested in young athletes, and she'd question them about how they're going and if they were enjoying it."

Babe remembers how Brunker would have to adapt her technique so she could throw effectively in later years.

"She was frustrated she was not to be able to sprint.

"As a masters athlete she's known more as a thrower and always tried to operate a bit above the norm.

"I live near a throwing circle and you'd often see Colleen [Brunker] practising out there with one of her famous solo 20 minute throwing sessions.

"She never wanted to spend too long away from home because her husband wasn't too well at times.

"We're going to really miss her at the Whangarei Athletics club. She would always be there and would always be reliable."

Two weeks prior to Brunker's death, she returned from the New Zealand Age Group Championships where she had again set national records for her age.

Renowned for her wide smile, Brunker won championship after championship, chosen Northland teams, broken records, and inspired young athletes to try that little bit harder.

Yet whether she's been first or nowhere Brunker as always derived great pleasure from being able to take part in competitive athletics.

Brunker was bright, had real endeavour, was as fit as a fiddle, unassuming, and epitomised everything that is good in sportsmanship.

- Northern Advocate

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