The stuff of champions: Yvette Corlett

By David Leggat

Our first female Olympic champion credits lateral thinking of coach and wife for harnessing her talent.

Yvette Corlett. Photo / Greg Bowker
Yvette Corlett. Photo / Greg Bowker

In a three-part series Herald chief sports writer David Leggat looks at the secret of success of some of New Zealand's greatest ever athletes.

As she traces her fingers over the photograph, the recollections start to flow.

Indeed Yvette Corlett reckons this to be her favourite photograph of herself.

The passage of time makes it hard to be precise, but it is thought it was taken either in 1949, when she was 20, or in 1951, the year before she leapt to fame as New Zealand's first woman Olympic champion, in the long jump pit at Helsinki.

The story behind the photograph is worth 1000 words.

The man at the bottom of it is her coach Jim Bellwood. It was Bellwood's idea to get a group of athletes, including the fast-rising young Yvette Williams, out training at St Clair beach to prepare for the season ahead. It doesn't sound anything special, but back then it was novel.

"They wanted a photo of me on the sandhills and he (the photographer) came out specifically to take that," she recalled.

A nice day? "It was always nice in Dunedin," she chuckled.

Back then, training regimens were relatively basic, nothing remotely akin to those leading athletes go through today.

Pre-season consisted of a few laps around the local park.

However, Bellwood was something of a lateral thinker. His own story is itself one of courage.

Originally from Canterbury, he had been captured during World War II and spent three years as a prisoner of war in Greece.

Upon repatriation, Bellwood attended Loughborough University in England, studied under renowned British athletics coach Geoff Dyson - who was in charge of Britain's Olympic athletes in three successive Games from Helsinki - met and married his Estonian wife Emilie and returned to New Zealand.

Emilie had been a good gymnast and the pair eventually settled in Dunedin; she as a physical education lecturer at Otago University, he working in physical education welfare programmes around the city.

"He was very quiet, very encouraging, he wasn't loud, didn't shout 'do this' or 'you have to do that'," Corlett, now 83, recalled.

Emilie Bellwood, armed with her east European training methods, also had a big impact on Corlett, working out her calisthenics drills before Helsinki. Corlett remembers Jim Bellwood suggesting St Clair and the sandhills. No one demurred.

"I enjoyed it very much. Always a Sunday, 10 o'clock I think. And if you had been out the night before it did you good to get up and go training."

So about 15 athletes would head for the (sand) hills. Modesty won't allow Williams to say so, but she was by a distance the outstanding pupil of the group, which also included four-time national decathlon champion Graeme Lawless and residential long jump champion Sam Dawson.

"We would gather at the park and run along the beach, up and down the sand for leg strengthening, all the way to Tomahawk Beach, then back skimming through the surf."

There is special significance to the photo in athletic terms too. At the time, Corlett was practising her new technique, the hitch kick. The effect is appearing to be sprinting in mid air. The American track legend Jesse Owens was her inspiration.

"I'd take a short run then practise the hitch kick, which I was wanting to do. Men would do it, but not women, so that's how I practised it, running in the air before I landed."

Corlett always practised it leaping down the hill. It gave precious time to fine tune the kick, and that's why Bellwood is at the bottom of the photograph.

The photo also speaks to the outdoor New Zealand lifestyle; fresh air, a young woman full of ambition and hope, the joys of life and the prospects of what the future might hold, at the zenith of her leap. Off in the distance the suburb of St Clair is visible. The Bellwoods lived there.

Jim Bellwood devised other training methods for Corlett. They may sound antiquated now, but they worked. There were drills with heavy medicine balls and he hung sand-bags and concrete blocks from her ankles, with straps around the instep for leg strengthening. Before Helsinki she jogged around Auckland Domain in army boots.

The first national coaching school took place in Timaru. Bellwood, then living in Wellington, was there; the teenage Corlett made the trip up, "and that's when they saw I had potential".

When "Emmy" got her position at the university the couple moved to Dunedin and the relationship was forged.

Back to the photograph. It doesn't take a great leap of imagination to think Corlett, as she soared high, might have remembered events many years earlier when her determination was clearly evident.

"When I was a young girl, about 10 or 11, we lived in Caversham and had a steep hill going up from our house. I challenged myself to get to the top without stopping. At first I could only go a quarter of the way. Every night I'd try and get a bit further, so I always had that instinct."

Even younger, she clearly recalls leaping her grandfather's flowerbeds and hedges - "he'd always say (in a growling tone) 'don't you break down my hedges'. I must have had some sort of feeling of running and jumping." Plus a generous dollop of resolve.

That day in Helsinki is well documented, how Corlett, already Empire Games champion from 1950, had two failed leaps, and qualified for the six-woman final with her last attempt.

As she prepared for that all-or-nothing leap, the thought rattled around her head: "The New Zealand public expected me to do well, so I thought 'I can't let everybody down'."

Then, on her next jump, she sped down the track and flew 6.24m, an Olympic record, half an inch off the world mark. Gold.

The world record, 6.29m, followed at Gisborne in February, 1954. That year she won gold in the discus, shot put and long jump at Vancouver in the Empire Games, and made the 80m hurdles final for good measure before retiring two years later, at 27.

Corlett remembers Jim and Emilie Bellwood - it was always "Mr Bellwood" - with respect and affection, never questioned what she was asked to do, and never a thought of youthful rebellion at their instructions. There's no question in her mind the sandhills training played a role in her success at Helsinki, and elsewhere.

The photo is a snapshot of another time, when things were done differently, but no worse for that.

"For the first 10 years after, Helsinki seemed like yesterday. Now it's getting a bit dim," Yvette Corlett said.

But as she gazed at the photo, the memories flooded back. Good ones too.

***

That nameless quality

New Zealand is a sporting playground, but one that comes with challenges.

While we have inherited most of our sporting pastimes from the second great wave of immigration to these shores - that is to say, predominantly British - the tyranny of distance means we had to, to some extent, make it up as we went.

That was not just true of our sporting lives. A DIY spirit permeated most aspects of our lives and gave rise to that much-loved perception of New Zealanders as having a No8-wire mentality.

There's plenty of evidence of that here in David Leggat's series on the things that have helped make New Zealand great. There was no easy, catch-all phrase to give the series.

A few ideas were tossed around, such as "Iconic Equipment", but none seemed to work.

After all, the Waiatarua run made famous by Arthur Lydiard and his disciples is hardly a piece of equipment and a netball post, as used by Irene van Dyk, is hardly iconic. It's the time spent under the post, rain and shine, that counts for van Dyk, and it was the spirit of the run that mattered for Lydiard's mob.

This is really about the stuff that makes our champions. Some of them are perfect examples of the DIY spirit, like Murray Grace's "chunder bike", so called because its resistance is so great that the country's sprint team is often left vomiting into a bucket after a session.

Our proximity to water has made us a great sailing nation, but almost as important as our coastline is the P-class yacht, designed in the 1920s and only raced in New Zealand.

The country's best sailors, including some of our most recent Olympic gold medallists, Jo Aleh and Olivia Powrie, learned to harness the breeze in one of these dinghies.

The proximity to water also assisted Yvette Williams to gold in the long jump. Arguably our greatest female athlete, Williams still treasures the iconic photo of herself leaping from the St Clair sandhills.

Other examples are more widespread, such as rowing's erg machine. The rest of the rowing world are using ergs, but not to the extremes of the likes of Eric Murray.

No, there's probably no catchy phrase for this three-day series; "The stuff of champions" will do quite nicely.
- Dylan Cleaver

- NZ Herald

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