On July 14, 1908, Harry Kerr became the first New Zealander to win an Olympic medal. He took the bronze medal in the 3500m walk at the London Olympic Games after a scare when he almost missed the start line of the race.Â
He received his tiny bronze medal, about a third the size of the medals handed out today, in a small box on which was engraved "Olympic Games, Third Prize, 3500 Metres Walk, LONDON, 1908".
Kerr, born in Taranaki in 1879, always had unusual sports ability. He was a champion shooter, loved rugby, and was good at most track and field events. But walking particularly caught the attention of the strapping 6ft 4in (or 1.93m) Kerr.Â
As was often the custom at the turn of the 20th century, he bypassed the major meets of the day to compete professionally, and was a regular at the big New Year's Day pro meet at the Caledonian Ground in Dunedin, where he conceded massive handicaps.Â
Kerr eventually decided to turn amateur, which necessitated standing down from all competition for two years.
He took his two-year hiatus in 1905-06, and dedicated himself to clearing bush on the family farm at Tariki, near Stratford.Â
Once eligible for championship meets, he quickly stamped his class and secured his Olympic selection by winning Australasian one and three-mile titles at Hobart in early 1908.Â
Kerr returned from London a national celebrity and continued to dominate the national scene, winning three further New Zealand titles in 1911-12. His greatest walk was at the national champs in Wellington in 1911, when he won the three-mile race in 21min 36.6s, which remained the national record until 1946.Â
He also enjoyed great success at the Australasian champs, winning two titles at both the 1909 and 1911 meetings.Â
He virtually retired in 1912, marrying Isobelle in 1913 and serving in Europe during World War I.Â
But one of the highlights of his career was yet to come. The national champs were held in nearby Wanganui in 1925 and Kerr, by then 46, decided to make a comeback.Â
He worked hard to regain his fitness, training by walking up and down the railway track near his farm. After ruining a pair of boots on the rough terrain, he then cleared a circular track around his house and did his training there.Â
Kerr's diligence was rewarded when he won the one and three-mile titles at the nationals. The New Zealand Herald headlined its report âWonderful Performance For Man Of His Ageâ and described his feat as "little short of marvellous".Â
Always an outgoing character, Kerr continued to follow sport avidly. He represented Taranaki as a lawn bowler and was a regular attendee at big rep rugby matches in Taranaki until his death from cancer, in 1951.Â
Kerr was inducted into the New Zealand Sports Hall of Fame in 1996.
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Harry's Games History
Olympic Summer Games London 1908