Pre-war medallist made history

By Doug Laing -
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Rona McCarthy cuts the cake on her 99th birthday on August 21 with her only daughter Karin Campbell.
Rona McCarthy cuts the cake on her 99th birthday on August 21 with her only daughter Karin Campbell.

History-making New Zealand pre-war Empire Games track and field medallist Rona McCarthy (nee Tong) died in Havelock North on Sunday, seven months short of her 100th birthday.

As Rona Tong, she was 21 when she came third in the Empire Games women's 80 yards hurdles at the Sydney Cricket Ground on February 4, 1938.

She and high jump third placegetter Elizabeth (Betty) Forbes that day became New Zealand's first female medallists at the Empire, Commonwealth or Olympic Games.

She celebrated her 99th birthday last August at Mary Doyle Lifecare, the Havelock North resthome where she kept the silver-ferned singlet and blazer, and the weighty bronze medal which could so easily have been gold.

The winner, South African athlete Barbara Burke, and runner-up Isabel Grant, of Australia, were both clocked at 11.7s, and the Kiwi just one-10th of a second slower at 11.8s.

Among other keepsakes was the small knife she used to scrape out her foothold at the start, in the days before starting blocks became a regular part of the athlete's kit, and long-before all-weather tracks.

The advent of World War II, which meant there were no Olympic Games in 1940 and 1944, nor any Empire Games in 1942, blocked her path to full global recognition, but she maintained a life of sporting involvement and achievement which ultimately led to her being created an MBE in the 1979 Queen's Birthday Honours.

She was named a national representative in netball and basketball (then known as basketball and indoor basketball respectively) but the teams never took to the court. She coached athletics and netball, became a prominent official and was made a Hastings netball umpires association life member in 1967.

She later took to bowls, becoming a president of Hastings' Kia Toa Bowling Club.

In 2007 she was inducted into Hawke's Bay sport's Unison Hall of Fame.

Born in Hastings and living all her life in the Hastings area, she was the daughter of funeral director Ossie and Florence Tong (nee Jarden). She started school at Haumoana, and was at Hastings High School when the Hawke's Bay Earthquake struck on the first day of school in 1931.

She first worked in the dressmaking trade, and was at Bon Marche at the time she went to the Games.

She married husband Les McCarthy at St Matthew's Church, Hastings, on November 7, 1939, and spent much of her working life at the retail counter.

Her husband worked at New Zealand Loan and Mercantile, and became an accountant with Dalgety and New Zealand Loan.

He died on November 26, 1993.

Mrs McCarthy is survived by daughter Karin Campbell, of Havelock North, grandson Aaron Campbell, of Onga Onga, and granddaughter Janine Varcoe, of Havelock North, and six great-grandchildren.

A private service was held on Tuesday.

Obituary:

* Rona Iris McCarthy

* August 22, 1916-January 31, 2016

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