Auretta O'Carroll's passion and determination for Special Olympics and the opportunities it created for athletes kept Special Olympics Taupō running for more than 30 years.

Central North Island regional sports co-ordinator Colleen Black says in essence, Auretta was Special Olympics Taupō.

Colleen first met Auretta at a Special Olympics annual meeting where Auretta's son John was on the door letting people in and Auretta was cutting cake for the attendees.

"It was not till halfway through the meeting I realised that the committee consisted of Auretta and half a dozen athletes and one other person. The committee was this way for a few years," Colleen says.

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When Auretta died last month, it left a huge gap in Special Olympics Taupō but Colleen says it now has more committee members and will work to carry on her legacy, although Auretta's contribution was invaluable.

"She has left large shoes to fill."

It's probably not surprising a large part of Auretta's life became dedicated to sport. Born in Raetihi in 1944, she grew up in a family that lived and breathed rugby. Her father Joe Marriner was a player, coach, manager and administrator who went on to manage the Māori All Blacks during overseas tours, and her brothers Keri and Toni Marriner both played for the Māori All Blacks.

Auretta, who affiliated to Ngā Puhi, grew up around the Central Plateau and King Country area where her father was a logging contractor. Links to the Taupō area were forged early, with the family holidaying at Motutere Bay every summer.

Pat and Auretta met at an Athletic Rugby Club event in Taumarunui. Pat says he saw Auretta and her father walk in the door and "that was it". They wed six months later, a marriage which lasted 53 years.

By 1987 Pat and Auretta and their children, John and Cherie, were living in Taupō. John, then 22, was disabled (years later he was diagnosed with autism) and Auretta wanted to provide sports opportunities for him.

Her daughter Cherie doesn't remember how her mother came across and got involved with Special Olympics, or whether anybody was running it in Taupō at the time, but she does recall the first event Auretta organised, a trip to Putaruru for South Waikato Ribbon Day athletics.

John competed in the 50m, 100m, 200m, high jump and relay. He, and Auretta, never looked back. John even holds an unbroken record for a softball throw although he later switched to ten-pin bowling.

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News of the opportunity to be involved with Special Olympics spread, and soon Auretta had a group of disabled athletes all keen to compete in various events.

It was the start of a long voluntary career with Special Olympics Taupō. Cherie says it was mostly Auretta through the years, with others, such as coach Lionel Martin and committee member Lyn Peters, helping out.

"It just seemed to snowball over the years and it got bigger and bigger," Cherie says. "People heard about it and started ringing her and she would say 'yes, come along' and she just took everybody and anyone."

Auretta would assess what each athlete wanted to do and what they were capable of and enter them in events to suit their ability, with disciplines ranging from indoor bowls to golf, changing the sports as they got older and adding new ones such as swimming.

Pat says John was Auretta's life and because of that, Special Olympics also became her job and her passion.

"It was all she lived for, Special Olympics and John. They were best buddies.

"Special Olympics came along at just the right time and after that, that was their world."

Wherever the Special Olympics events were, Auretta would get a group of 15 or so athletes together plus caregivers, managers and coaches together and travel to them.

Every four years there was the national Special Olympics event somewhere in New Zealand. Auretta did much of the fundraising to help send the athletes to the nationals - Cherie remembers endless sausage sizzles and car washes.

It was not until recent years that Auretta was able to apply to foundations and trusts for the money required. Getting the funds was always a struggle, along with finding people to help. But Cherie says Auretta was always determined to get the athletes qualified to compete at nationals, so for her, the effort was worth it.

Pat says it wasn't until Auretta got ill two years ago that he realised how much she did for Special Olympics because she was so humble about it and never liked to be in the limelight.

Even finding photographs of her with the athletes or at events was virtually impossible because she preferred to be in the background. When she wasn't busy with Special Olympics, she liked to be at home, watching rugby, knitting or sewing.

Special Olympics events could be stressful, with organisers having to know who was competing in what, and where and when, Cherie says.

But Auretta knew how to manage the athletes, to get everybody in the right place at the right time and in the right frame of mind, her daughter says. She had patience in spades and a lot of time for the athletes.

But she could be firm too.

"If anyone stepped over the line she would just look at them and they would know to get back behind the box. But she had a lot of fun with the guys too. There was respect, but she had everything under control."

Auretta was always incredibly proud of how well the Taupō Special Olympians did. They always brought home a large number of medals and ribbons from events and that was her reward, Pat says.

Her efforts were appreciated by the many athletes she supported over the years and their families.

Pat says Special Olympics was her life and to the athletes who had grown up with Auretta, she was like a mum to them.

With Auretta gone, Colleen says the club intends to carry on her legacy. Any help people can offer would be appreciated.

Auretta O'Carroll died on August 13. She is survived by husband Pat, children John and Cherie, and three grandchildren.