Yvette Corlett had a slightly guilty admission to make.

In 1977 we were sitting in the lounge of the Pakuranga home she shared with husband Buddy, working on a chapter for a book the Halberg Foundation was putting together.

I asked her how she had adapted to moving from sparsely attended meets in Dunedin to competing in the long jump at the 1952 Olympic Games in front of 70,000 people at the Olympic Stadium. She had never been further outside New Zealand than Australia before.
"I'm a bit embarrassed about this," she said, as if being in the spotlight was a little like boasting, "but the bigger the crowd was the more I enjoyed it. I never found a large crowd intimidating, I just felt uplifted."

Not wanting to be a show off was a huge part of Yvette Corlett's make-up. Luckily for New Zealand sport, so was a massive will to win, and staggering natural ability.


In Helsinki a lot went against her. During qualifying she stepped in a gap beside the jump area, and twisted a ligament in her right knee. The New Zealand team didn't have a doctor, so she had to rely on the goodwill of the English squad's doctor to work on a stiffening knee joint.

"I had a constant nagging thought, 'Will my knee stand up to this?' I only qualified for the last three rounds on my last of three attempts."

Now in fourth place she knew she had to make her next jump a massive one.

"It was now or never. I knew it was a good jump immediately." Soaring into the air she used a trademark hitch kick, which she had worked on with coach Jim Bellwood on the sand dunes of St Kilda beach in Dunedin. "It was a wonderful feeling, like flying."

A white flag few up, and she had jumped 6.24m, an Olympic record, and just half an inch off the world record. The gold medal, the first ever won by a New Zealand woman, was captured.

Team management sent a terse, but heartfelt cable back to New Zealand. "Yvette strikes gold. Excitement intense. Hurrah!"

The reaction in New Zealand was extraordinary. There was a parliamentary reception. In Dunedin most of the city was there when she arrived to welcome her home, and a local paper reported that "a rose has been named after our fragrant new champion."

While the world record had eluded her in Helsinki she nailed it in February, 1954, in Gisborne, jumping 6.28m. She won not only gold medals for the long jump at two Empire Games, but also won gold in shot put and discus in the Empire Games of 1954 in Vancouver, and a silver for the javelin at the 1950 Games in Auckland.

As a teenager in Dunedin, she said, her mother was horrified when she discovered that as well as the ladylike sprinting, hurdling (she was a national 80m hurdles champion), Yvette was also throwing the shot. "I had a lot of explaining to do when Mum saw the results in the Otago Daily Times."

If there had been a heptathlon available to her she would, without question, have been unbeatable. She is probably the most versatile world class athlete New Zealand has ever had.

But no matter how much success she achieved, no matter how many awards poured down, or how many more she might have won, bet your life on the fact that Yvette Williams would remain the quietly spoken, genuinely humble person she had always been.

The last time I sat down with her was five or six years ago, when she kindly signed a T-shirt, to be auctioned for charity, which Valerie Adams had already signed. Yvette was happy to oblige, but asked, "Do you really think they might get more with my name on it?"