Yvette Corlett has made a leap as astonishing as the one that brought her Olympic gold in Helsinki 54 years ago.

After brain surgery in March, the sporting great lost the ability to speak, walk and use the right hand that launched many a javelin, shot and discus.

Today she is speaking, slowly, walking, slowly, and writing, shakily. Staff at Middlemore Hospital are amazed at her determination and progress. Perhaps they shouldn't be.

Before her 1952 Olympic long jump victory, Corlett (formerly Williams) juggled fulltime work with five hours of training a day, often in the mud of Auckland's Domain, where she would run up hills in heavy work boots.

Now 77, she has been home in Howick only a week but Friday was another breakthrough day. She wore shoes for the first time in three months and took her new mobility scooter for a maiden spin to the shops. It's no chariot of fire but right now is a necessity.

It isn't Corlett's first setback. She had heart surgery 13 years ago and battled back from bowel cancer in 2002. "I don't know what I've done wrong to warrant all these things," she said. "I try to lead a healthy life."

It's the only time she sounds demoralised. She is facing her struggle with customary positivity. It took two operations to remove an abscess on her brain but Corlett considers herself fortunate. "I was lucky I didn't lose the use of my legs."

As she leans back and cycles her legs rapidly in mid-air, you are reminded you're in the presence of a born athlete. She likens her rehabilitation to beating personal bests in her sporting heyday.

She has been tested on 50 movements. She has gone from 13 out of 50, to 36, to 46. The first thing she said after her last test was: "Where did I lose the four points?"

Her progress is all the more remarkable given she fell and had a massive haematoma on her left hand. Her weaker right hand is slowly improving and she wrote a letter to her aunt Ruby in Whangaparaoa.

"She'll get a shock when she receives it. She's 97 - still fit and looks after herself."

Corlett has received good wishes from around the world, including from Dallas-based triple Olympic gold medallist Peter Snell, who said of Corlett: "She's my favourite female."

Born and raised in Dunedin, Yvette Winifred Williams became New Zealand's first female Olympic gold medallist, winning in Finland. At the same Games, she was sixth in the shot put and 10th in the discus.

She won three golds (long jump, shot put and javelin) at the Empire Games in Vancouver.

At the 1950 Empire Games in Auckland, she won the long jump and took silver in the javelin. She set the long jump world record (6.28m) on a grass track in Gisborne in 1954, represented New Zealand in basketball, and Otago and the South Island in netball.

Corlett is modest about her achievements and while her two Halberg Awards are above the TV, she keeps her medals in a box under the bed in the spare room.

"I was presented the medal by Sir Arthur Porritt (Olympic bronze medallist in the 100m sprint in 1924) and the New Zealand supporters and team ran on to the track and carried me shoulder-high from the stadium. We had only the manager and the chaperone - no doctors or physios, no psychologists and no coach."

The only other woman in the team of 15 was Jean Stewart, who won bronze in the 100m backstroke.

Stewart married Lincoln Hurring, who was in the same Olympic team.

"They didn't get on at all at the start," said Corlett. "They'd train at opposite ends of the pool."

Yvette met Buddy Corlett, a Canadian who went on to play basketball for New Zealand, when she was working at the YMCA office in Auckland.

Teenage granddaughters Dana and Karlene Corlett have both won Auckland javelin titles but their grandmother thinks they'll stick with netball.

The grandchild showing the most prodigious sporting ability might be 13-year-old Nathan Corlett, who has made rep teams in soccer, rugby and athletics.

Asked if she would she like to play sport again, she laughs.

"I hope to be able to write properly again. I hope to be able to speak a bit better... and to walk, I hope."