After serving 14 years on the Athletics NZ Board - 11 of them as chair - Annette Purvis leaves the role with a raft of proud accomplishments. Steve Landells chats to the diminutive Cantabrian about her time in the role, her legacy and why athletics will always play a central role in her life.

It is little hard to comprehend the journey Annette Purvis has made since attending her first club committee as a raw 18-year-old at the Technical Athletic Club.

Back in 1982 women on club committees were as rare as hens teeth and without doubt it was intimidating prospect for the then teenage Cantabrian.

"In those days they (club committees) were attended by men in suits sat in rows of chairs, it was a very formal affair," she explains "I took a girlfriend along for support (for my first club committee meeting) and when she piped up to say something they all looked at her blankly. I remember thinking, Oh my goodness. Why are we even here?"

Some 36 years on and Annette can laugh at the experience. Women have made huge progress in the sport as the proud Cantabrian has herself carved out a successful niche in athletics leadership both domestically and internationally.

Her journey into the administrative world began after her coach, the legendary Valdy Briedis, and the man who guided Val Young and Marise Chamberlain to international success, recommended Annette join the Technical Athletic Club committee due to her organisational skills and forthright nature.

It proved an inspired piece of foresight from the Latvian-born coach.

Possessing a naturally inquisitive nature, Annette was not dissuaded following her awkward first club committee experience and quickly discovered she enjoyed serving in administrative and leadership roles.

After moving to Wellington for work in the early 90s, the woman who had been inspired to start athletics after watching the 1974 Christchurch Commonwealth Games, served as womens club captain at Wellington Scottish. She also spent a stint on the Wellington Cross Country and Road Committee and served as chair of Hutt Valley Track and Field and Valleys United.

Her positive influence in the regions was to extend nationally after Richard Willis, father of two-time Olympic 1500m medallist Nick Willis, suggested Annette should put her name forward to join the Athletics NZ board.

Back then securing her position via an electoral vote, she says the prospect was initially daunting for the former Inter-Provincial standard middle-distance runner.

"I knew a bit about how clubs worked," she explains, "but I had no really notion of governance. I had views on certain issues and I found that over time governance was something I really enjoyed. I quickly found working in the role was more about looking at the bigger picture as opposed to the operational nuts and bolts."

Quickly understanding the role of a board was to adopt a strategic role and to strive towards a vision with help from her first Athletics NZ chair Craig Purdy, within two years Annette became deputy chair before assuming the position as chair in 2007 she says partly because she was "always prepared to share my opinion and be forward-thinking."

One of the great challenges facing the board had been putting some clear structure and framework around high performance, which has been given a withering assessment following the 2004 Athens Olympic Games by the then New Zealand Olympic Committee Secretary General Barry Maister.

"He gave us a ranking of 26th out of the 26 Olympic sports in terms of not only our performance at the Games (where New Zealand failed to win an athletics medal) but also our whole philosophy and how we fulfilled our HP roles," recalls Annette. "Back then our structures and frameworks did not really support HP and we were struggling."

Change was necessary and was forthcoming in several areas. Under the leadership of then CEO Scott Newman constitutional change was brought about which meant selectors - rather than be elected by council - could be appointed according to the type of skills required for the event. "This ensured selectors understood the growing professionalism of HP," she adds.

The high performance philosophy also embraced the top 16 funding model as initially adopted by former Athletics NZ High Performance Director Kevin Ankrom and since successively led by current incumbent Scott Goodman. All of which has helped guide Athletics NZ to their fabulous showing at the 2016 Rio Olympics in which New Zealand snared four athletics medals, equalling their haul from the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

"I am really proud that today we are a Tier 1 funded (HPSNZ) sport, which receives $2.7m of money annually (from HPSNZ)," she adds. "We have really raised the bar in terms of performance. The depth and breadth of our high performance system has massively improved. We are starting to gain real traction in terms of our HP pathways and we now have to look towards the 2024 and 2028 Olympics and winning medals, which is where HPSNZ is starting to focus."

Those constitutional changes made eight years ago also represent an enormous source of pride for Annette. She says moving away from a straight electoral process to a board appointments panel and modernising the governance structure was vital for the long-term wellbeing of the sport.

"We got the councillors to vote themselves out, which allowed clubs to have a closer link to the national body and gave them a greater understanding of what the national body represents," she explains. "It was a two-year piece of work and many people didnt believe we could do it. It took many consultations and a great deal of engagement with the sport across the regions. "

While high performance sport in New Zealand has made huge progress, she admits grassroots funding is more difficult to achieve.

Describing funding as "slow" she nonetheless believes progress is being made.

"We are making inroads with more focus on coaches and officials development, these things have taken a little longer - that is the reality," she adds.

Financial challenges are a constant burden for Athletics NZ. She describes the body as "almost insolvent" back in 2007 and while progress has been made over the past 11 years, chiefly by raising membership fees, it is an ongoing battle.

"We had a great year when the Rotorua Marathon celebrated its 50th anniversary but to make that $30-50,000 annual surplus is hard work. We have to monitor budget tightly, which is something the board is familiar with. In saying that, we are bringing in new partners and new revenues on a project basis. However, this is not like bringing on board a sponsor with untagged money in which we could spend the money how we wanted."

Deciding to step away from the board to keep things fresh at a governance level fits in with the 54-year-olds philosophy, but the 1.60m tall Cantabrian will not be lost to the sport. She will serve as a trustee at the new Nga Puna Wai Sports Hub in Christchurch. She is also making a significant contribution internationally by serving on the IAAF international Womens Committee and as an IAAF Gender Leadership Taskforce member. Annette was also elected on the NZOC board in 2017.

"I really want to stay involved and I have a desire to work in the Oceania council to strengthen the region," explains Annette, who works in her day job as the General Manager in the Disaster Recovery Unit at IAG. "I also have a strong interest in the IAAF and hope to do what I can do to further enhance my support of the international body."

So, rewinding the clock back 36 years to her first nervy club committee meeting does she feel women have a far greater impact on the sport?

"I think weve made a huge leap forward," she says. "If you look at the composition of lots of clubs there is a considerable female representation."

Yet progress still needs to be made.

"Many women still tend to sit in roles such as secretary or treasurer and perhaps more women just need to have more belief that they can fulfil a wider range of roles," she explains. "We also need more female coaches and more senior officials, not just in athletics but sport in general. New Zealand performs to a very high standard in female sport. For me, it is about making sure you utilise the full population."

Believing her legacy in her role as board chair was strengthening governance and making significant gains in the high performance philosophy and framework, she looks back with pride on time serving Athletics NZ and the sport in general.

"I was never a great athlete but I found out I didnt need to be and that I could contribute in a different way," she adds. "I guess, over time, I became hooked on that."

- This story has been automatically published using a media release from Athletics New Zealand