Yvette Corlett received an important and long overdue letter before she died.

She was going to be made a dame in the Queen's Birthday Honours. Her Majesty's approval of the award took effect on April 12, a day before the outstanding athlete died, aged 89.

Dame Yvette's brother Roy Williams said the family felt pride but also a tinge of regret Dame Yvette did not get the honour sooner.

"We are all very thrilled to see that finally Yvette was given the ultimate royal honour of a dame," Mr Williams said.

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"It is very sad that she won't be here to receive the royal honour but she knew she was going to get it.

"She was very pleased but she always understated herself. She used to say 'I don't want to be going around being called Dame'."

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Dame Yvette (nee Yvette Williams) leaped her way into the hearts of New Zealanders with her effort to win gold at the 1952 Helsinki Olympic Games.

Her winning long jump of 6.24m was just 1cm short of the world record at the time, and she became the first New Zealand woman to win an Olympic gold medal.

Dame Yvette, who was born in Dunedin and educated at Otago Girls' High School, broke the world record two years later with a jump of 6.28m in Gisborne.

Later that year she travelled to the 1954 British Empire and Commonwealth Games in Canada, where she won gold in the long jump, discus and shot put, setting Games records in all three events. She also finished sixth in the 80m hurdles.

It was an extraordinary career and one that ended early. She retired in November, 1954 and married Buddy Corlett in December. They had four children.

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Dame Yvette served as patron of the Counties Manukau Regional Sports Trust for 17 years until 2009, as patron of Athletics New Zealand from 2003 to 2006 and on the board of the New Zealand Sports Hall of Fame from 1990 to 1995. She would also volunteer her time coaching at the Panmure Young Citizens Centre.

Dame Yvette was made a Member of the Order of the British Empire in 1953 for services to women's athletics, and a Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to athletics in the 2011 New Year Honours.

That latter award was forthcoming only after Mr Williams campaigned the honours committee. The likes of Sir Peter Snell, Sir Murray Halberg and Sir John Walker added their support, as did New Zealand Sports Hall of Fame chief executive Ron Palenski, of Dunedin.

Mr Palenski told the Otago Daily Times the damehood was a lovely gesture "but it is, sadly, too late for Yvette to appreciate".

"As far as I'm concerned, she is one of New Zealand's greatest athletes."