Madonna Harris belongs to one of the most distinguished groups of New Zealand athletes. Harris represented her country at both Seoul Summer and Calgary Winter Olympic Games in 1988. Cyclist/speed skater Chris Nicholson is the only other New Zealander to achieve the feat, competing at Albertville and Barcelona in the 1992 and then he went on to compete again at Lillehammer in 1994.
Harris, born in Hamilton in 1956, was an amazing sportswoman. Long before she became an Olympian, Madonna Gilchrist, as she was, had represented New Zealand at basketball, in 1977-78, and athletics in 1977, when she ran in the 400m hurdles at the Pacific Conference Games at Canberra. She was also the Waikato pentathlon champion. She left New Zealand in 1978, on an athletics and basketball scholarship to Utah State University. Three years later she married Utah ski instructor John Harris. This led to her becoming a professional ski instructor and taking up cross-country skiing competitively. Seeking more sports challenges, she represented Utah in the United States Olympic soccer trials and began competing in triathlons, with almost immediate success. Then, at the age of 28, she literally fell into the sport of cycling. She slipped on ice while running, and for several weeks could only ride. Soon she was a competitive cyclist. Harris progressed from a novice cyclist to a world-class competitor in remarkably short time. In 1985 she competed in the Rocky Mountain cycling classic in Colorado and hinted at her potential by winning a stage against some of the world’s best riders. At the 1986 and 1987 world road championships, when she rode without team support, she placed 33rd and 17th. In 1987 she posted an impressive fifth in the 3000m individual pursuit world championship. By 1988 she had lived away from New Zealand for a decade and was virtually unknown at home. But that changed when she competed for New Zealand in the 20km cross-country skiing, said to be the most physically demanding of all sports, at the Calgary winter Olympics. She was timed at 1h 03min 09s for 40th place in a field of 55. Later that year she rode in the Seoul Olympics cycling road race. Her Did Not Finish result did not reflect the quality of her performance. She pushed the pace throughout, and kept with every break until punctures forced her withdrawal late in the race. In 1989, she was fifth in the world road championships and second in the world mountain bike hill climb. At this time she held every available New Zealand women’s cycling title simultaneously – the 3000m individual pursuit and points races on the track, the road race and, with Waikato, the team time trial. Harris confirmed her versatility at the 1990 Auckland Commonwealth Games, by which time she was 33. In the final of the 3000m individual pursuit, Harris fought back from a deficit of 0.44s entering the final lap to edge out future Olympic gold medallist Kathy Watt, of Australia. She followed that gold medal with a fourth placing in the 72km road race. Harris and countrywoman Kathy Lynch did much of the spadework for nearly two hours, but dipped out in a sprint finish that was won by Watt. Harris finished just 0.63s behind the winner. At the 1990 world championship in Japan, she won a strangely unheralded silver medal behind the legendary Dutchwoman Leontien van Moorsel in the individual pursuit. Harris was on course for selection for the 1992 Barcelona Olympics team when she decided to retire, owing to recurring bronchitis. By then her focus was elsewhere. While preparing for the Auckland Commonwealth Games she had met Paul Jeffrey, a herbal chemist and health advisor to the national cycling team. They became partners in every sense of the word, and marketed a range of herbal creams they called Nature’s Kiss. The business became a multi-million dollar success and when they sold it in 2003, it had worldwide interests. Harris and Jeffrey began competing in the emerging sport of endurance horse-racing, and again Harris revealed her competitiveness and ability, contesting the world, European and Pan American championships from 2000-03. When long-serving games selector Bruce Cameron stood down in 2005 he singled out Harris for special mention among the hundreds of athletes had had chosen. “She was an outstanding competitor, incredibly tough. She was a champion who had unbelievable drive and self-belief,” said Cameron. Harris and Jeffrey continued their thriving business ventures, entering successful ventures in Spain and Australia along the same lines as the Nature’s Kiss product. In 2010, aged 53, Harris finished third in the Mongol Derby, described as the longest and toughest horse race in the world. It takes riders 1000 kilometres across the Mongolian wilderness. Harris was awarded an MBE in 1990.