Biography

Marise Chamberlain Born 1935 

Marise Chamberlain was an athlete ahead of her time. She remains New Zealand's only female Olympic track medallist and for four decades was the fastest New Zealand woman over 800m. She set world records over distances from 440 yards to the mile. 

Chamberlain won the silver medal in the Empire Games half-mile at Perth in 1962 and the Olympic 800m bronze at Tokyo two years later. She'd have won a gold medal at the 1966 Kingston Empire Games but for a tragic stumble near the finish line. 

Chamberlain and fellow Christchurch athlete Val Young were the best-known protégées of coach Valdy Briedis, who was just as revolutionary and successful as the more famous Arthur Lydiard in Auckland. 

Young and Chamberlain quickly showed they were in the top class, but suffered from New Zealand's athletics isolation. Chamberlain was a rather gentle person, not ideally suited to the hustle of international competition, and needed the experience of tough racing. 

At a time when athletes were expected to pay their way everywhere, Chamberlain went to a masseur three times a week and paid for that, which took a big chunk out of her typist's pay. 

She won 17 nationals titles, virtually all solo efforts. The only class runner she consistently raced was brilliant Australian Dixie Willis. When Chamberlain was in her prime, women did not run even middle-distance races. So Chamberlain had to run the sprints. 

At the Cardiff Empire Games in 1958, she was selected for the 100 yards and 200 yards, the longest races on the women's programme, when she was actually an ideal half-miler/miler. 

Chamberlain first began breaking world records in 1958 when she slashed the 440 yards mark of 57s to 56.3s in Christchurch. For a time she and Australian Betty Cuthbert broke each other's world records. 

She was always a popular athlete, at home and, during the Olympics, with the Japanese - she was known throughout the Olympic village as "Chamberlain-san". The Japanese loved her attempts to speak their language - she carried her translation dictionary everywhere. 

Chamberlain said she was incredibly nervous throughout her time in Tokyo.

“Once the heats began I felt a bit better. I finished second, just behind the Frenchwoman, Dupureur, and we qualified easily. In the semi-final I ran very well. Dr Grigor, our team doctor, let me ring Valdy [Briedis] back in Christchurch each night as a reward for running so well. Talking to Valdy was reassuring. But even so I had a terrible night before the final. I must have run that race 20 times in my head! I wouldn‘t be surprised if I never had a moment of sleep all night.

“I felt really bad in the warm-up before the final. I’d never felt so weak. The more people said ‘Good luck’, the weaker I felt. On the starting line I was in lane seven, between the two Brits, Ann Packer and Anne Smith. All their supporters were just across the track cheering for them. It was very intimidating.

“When the race began I found myself near the back and then the German, Antje Gleichfeld, elbowed me really hard. I almost fell off the track, and would have, but for a pair of hands behind me catching me and pushing me back. I think it was Ann Packer. I didn’t know Gleichfeld was known for those sorts of tactics. I’d never been in that sort of race before.

“I ran most of the race in a bit of a dream. With 200 metres to go I was two lanes wide. Then, through my trance-like state, I could hear a chant of ‘black, black, black’. It was the Japanese cheering for me. That jolted me.

“I decided to do something about my position, but I made a very big mistake. I ran three wide around the bend. I went through the field, but covered a lot of extra ground.

“What I didn’t know was that Ann Packer had pinpointed me as the likely winner and was determined to follow me throughout the race. Sure enough, when I went, she followed and I took her right through into the final straight. At that stage Dupureur was a couple of metres ahead, and I couldn’t close that gap.

“Then Ann went past and there was nothing I could do about that. So it finished Packer, Dupureur, Chamberlain. Because they used my second name, Ann, on the scoreboard, we were all Anns.” (Dupureur’s first name was Maryvonne, but it was anglicised as Anne.)

“I could never describe how happy I felt afterwards. I wanted so much to be able to stand on that dais at an Olympics. When I stepped up, I thought about all those years of sweat and grime and dirt, the terrible conditions, my parents holding meals for me for all those years, all the help I’d got from so many people, Valdy. I burst into tears, and cried and cried. 

“Eventually Ann Packer nudged me and said Lord Burghley, who was presenting the medals, was waiting for me. I apologised, but he said that it was okay, and that he’d enjoyed the race.” 

Chamberlain was inducted into the New Zealand Sports Hall of Fame in 1995.