Three professional sportsmen who have won national and international honours are the latest inductees into the Whanganui Sports Hall of Fame, announced tonight at the 2019 Ray White Whanganui Sports Awards.
Pat O'Connor, the late Empire Games silver medal amateur wrestler who became a world champion in the entertainment of professional wrestling, the British Open golf runnerup Simon Owen, and prolific winning jockey Brent Thomson have been added to the honours board.
Introduced in 2008, there are now 29 individuals and three family groups in the hall, coming from 14 different sporting codes.
The judges for this year's Hall of Fame were Keith Smith (chairman), Hamish McDouall (WDC mayor), Ron Palenski (Dunedin, NZ Sports Hall of Fame Director), Ken Mair (Iwi representative), Mark Stoneman (multisport organiser), Sue Haden (Whanganui Sports Heritage Trust chairperson), Nicky Malipaard (Sport Whanganui secretary) and John Phillips (Whanganui media).
Patrick John O'Connor (1924-1990), was born in Raetihi and is most well known for being the National Wrestling Alliance (NWA) World Heavyweight champion from 1959-61.
Before entering the entertainment of professional wrestling, although it was closely guarded as legitimate sport in that era, O'Connor was a highly successful amateur wrestler – winning the New Zealand heavyweight championship twice and the silver medal in freestyle heavyweight at the 1950 Empire Games in Auckland.
From a farming background, O'Connor attended Massey Agricultural College and spent six months in the Royal New Zealand Air Force, while playing sport in Whanganui including for the Marist Rugby Football Club.
He trained as a blacksmith to help finance wrestling coaching under the late Don Anderson, before linking up with the gym of Anton Koolman in Wellington.
O'Connor represented New Zealand at the Pan American Games, before winning the national heavyweight amateur title in 1949 and 1950, ahead of his silver at the British Empire Games, now known as the Commonwealth Games.
Then it was off to America to try his hand in the professional ranks, where in 1955 he and partner Roy McClarity won the Chicago version of the NWA world tag team title, holding the championship for a year.
He also won the NWA British Empire title in Toronto and held the Canadian Open Tag Team title with Billy (Whipper) Watson in 1957.
O'Connor's major wrestling breakthrough came at his home base of St Louis when he ended NWA world champion Dick Hutton's 13-month reign with a spinning leg lock on January 9, 1959.
The New Zealander defended the title for 31 months before losing to the original "Nature Boy" Buddy Rogers on June 30, 1961 before a crowd of 38,622 at Chicago's Comiskey Park – a North American attendance record that stood until the mid-1980's.
During O'Connor's NWA title reign, the American Wrestling Association (AWA) seceded from the NWA in May 1960 – giving O'Connor 90 days to defend their version of the world title before it was awarded to Verne Gagne, making O'Connor the only wrestler to technically hold both the NWA and AWA world titles at the same time.
O'Connor did eventually wrestle for the AWA, winning the world tag team title with Wilbur Snyder in 1967, and teaming again with Snyder to win the WWA tag title in 1968.
Later a prominent professional wrestling promoter, O'Connor retired in 1982 after 32 years of wrestling, having returned to New Zealand briefly for several matches.
He died from cancer at the age of 65 in St Louis, Missouri, on August 16, 1990, and was held in such esteem that memorial services were held in both Kansas City and St Louis.
In 2007, he was posthumously inducted into the Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame.
Born in Whanganui in 1958 as son of the noted horse trainer, the late Kevin Thomson, Brent rode more than 2500 winners in 27 countries, becoming a member of both the New Zealand and Australian Racing Halls of Fame.
He was a natural lightweight jockey who started his racing career in Whanganui at the age of 15, becoming New Zealand's top apprentice the following year, and then in 1974 rode Fury's Order to victory in the Benson & Hedges Cup at Riccarton.
Thomson went on to ride Fury's Order to win the first of his four Australian weight-for-age Cox Plates within five years in 1975.
His Cox Plate domination included a hat-trick of victories for ace trainer Colin Hayes.
The Whanganui rider was the stable jockey for Hayes for six years and would win three Victorian premierships – the first rider from outside the state to achieve the feat.
Thomson was lured to Britain by prolific owner Robert Sangster, where his successes started at Royal Ascot in the Cork & Orrery (now the Queen Elizabeth Jubilee) and also included winning Queen Elizabeth II Cup and back-to-back Ascot Gold cups.
The 24-year-old rider won 30 races in his first five months in Britain.
He returned to Australia in 1987 to win the Caulfield Guineas and a second Caulfield Cup but then eventually moved to Asia, where he found riding in Hong Kong very exciting.
Thomson was attached to the powerful Brian Kan Ping-chee stable for part of his five years on the Asian circuit, retiring in 2000 after riding in Macau.
His 2500-plus winners included the 1984 Baden-Baden Grand Prix in Germany on Australian mount Strawberry Road – of the 54 Group 1 events he won.
Thomson rates Dulcify the best horse he ever rode, as winner of the AJC Derby, Victorian Derby, Rosehill Guineas and the 1979 Cox Plate, but the horse was fatally injured during the 1979 Melbourne Cup.
Nicknamed the "Wanganui Whiz-kid" and later "The Babe" in Australia, Thomson enjoyed great popularity around the world and now lives in Melbourne where he is a New Zealand Bloodstock representative.
Whanganui born in 1950, Simon Owen was the 1976 International Double Diamond individual golf champion, and won 17 tournaments around the world during his professional career, which included representing New Zealand five times in team events.
Although he won titles in Scotland, Italy, Tunisia, Malaysia, Australia, Fiji and New Zealand, Owen is best known for his effort in leading the field in the 1978 British Open with three holes to play at the famous St Andrews course in Scotland.
In the fourth and final round, he slotted six birdies in the space of seven holes, including chipping in on the 15th green, to move ahead of his playing partner – the legendary Jack Nicklaus.
Although Owen played several fine shots over the closing three holes, it was the American who snared a birdie compared to a bogey by the Kiwi on the 16th hole to take a 1-up lead.
Owen's approach on the notorious 17th (Road Hole) trickled off the green, and he just missed a par putt, whereas Nicklaus carded a par four for a 2-up advantage.
Regulation pars by the playing partners on the 18th saw Nicklaus claim the title by two shots from Owen and the American trio of Tom Kite, Ben Crenshaw and Raymond Floyd.
Owen said it was an honour to play alongside the greatest golfer the world has ever seen and give him a run for his money.
Although he played in a dozen British Opens and the 1979 US Masters, it was his titanic 1978 tussle with Nicklaus which stands out as his closest effort to creating international golfing fame.
His two main European victories were winning the 1974 German Open with a score of 12-under 276, after a birdie on the first extra play-off hole against England's Peter Oosterhuis, and the 1976 Double Diamond tournament at Gleneagles with 8-under 132 – two shots clear of Brian Huggett (Wales) and David Ingram (Scotland).
Owen also won the 2001 Tunisian Open in a playoff with American Bob Lendzion and the 2007 Italian Open after a play-off with John Benda (USA), Tony Allen and Carl Mason (both England) on the European Seniors circuit.
He also won the 1972 Fiji Open, 1976 New Zealand Open, 1978 New Zealand PGA and the Malaysian Masters, the 1980 South Australian Open and 1981 Tahiti Open.
Owen was in the New Zealand team that reached the semifinals of the 1990 Dunhill Cup tournament at St Andrews, alongside Frank Nobilo and Greg Turner, after making his Dunhill debut the previous year.
He played in the New Zealand World Cup team in 1973 and 1989, held in Spain, and also in California in 1976.
Owen and his wife Cathy now live at Kinloch where he is a teaching professional.