20 NZ Olympic Moments: No. 4, Super-athlete's gold raised bar

Herald sports writers Dylan Cleaver and David Leggat continue to count down New Zealand's great Olympic moments. Today, at number 4, we remember Yvette Williams' gold in Helsinki.

First among equals. New Zealand has had five women Olympic champions but Yvette Williams' place in this group is special.

One of New Zealand's greatest athletes, Williams set the ball rolling at the Helsinki Games of 1952, when she leaped 6.24m to win the long jump crown. Williams broke the ceiling, and Barbara Kendall, Sarah Ulmer, twins Georgina Earl and Caroline Meyer - twice - and Val Adams have followed.

The Otago woman was an athlete of multiple talents. She was already Empire Games champion, and would be again in two years' time. She won four Empire gold medals in long jump, discus and shot put and if a heptathlon had been on the Olympic card in Helsinki she would surely have been a short-priced favourite.

But it almost went wrong on the day in Finland.

Williams topped the 33 qualifiers with a leap of 6.16m. Her closest rival, Aleksandra Chudina of the Soviet Union, managed 5.77m. The stage was set.

Williams, off her 33-metre runup, had two no jumps. Gathered around wirelesses the length and breadth of the country in the middle of a winter's night, New Zealanders held their breath. The field was to be whittled down to six, and Williams had one chance to make it.

She sprinted, leaped, and a white flag was raised by the official, indicating a fair jump. It was 5.94m, good enough to get her into the final.

Her fourth jump was perfect, and an Olympic record, half an inch off the world mark.

Chudina couldn't match it. None of the other finalists came close, and Williams had the gold.

Haka broke out in the stands, suggesting some things don't change half a century on, rain poured but no one cared.

The medals were presented by Arthur Porritt, bronze medallist in the 100m at Paris, who had been team captain when Ted Morgan won New Zealand's first Olympic gold, and manager and mentor when Jack Lovelock won his in 1936.

A telegram arrived for Williams: "Congratulations Chickie. Wonderful effort. Mighty proud of you. Dad."

Williams was sixth in the shot put and 10th in the discus, demonstrating her remarkable versatility.

She set a world record of 6.28m in the long jump at Gisborne two years later, played basketball for New Zealand and was Otago's named Sportsperson of the Century in 2000.

Her place among New Zealand's sporting greats is secure.

- NZ Herald

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