Biography

Yvette Williams Born 1929 

Yvette Williams' place in New Zealand sports history is secure. An Olympic gold medal, four Empire Games golds, a world record... there wasn't much this running, jumping, throwing, hurdling athlete of the early 1950s didn't achieve. She'd have been a natural for the heptathlon, but unfortunately that event did not exist when Williams competed.

Williams, who grew up in Dunedin, is recalled naturally for her dramatic long jump gold medal at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics and for her world record leap of 6.29m (20ft 7½in) in Gisborne in 1954. 

But she was a versatile athlete who won Empire Games gold medals in the shot and discus, besides her two in the long jump, a silver in the javelin and made an 80m hurdles final. Eventually she won 21 national titles spread over five disciplines. 

Williams also represented New Zealand at basketball and reached South Island representative level at netball. She said that while she had natural ability, she built on it with hard work: "I used concrete blocks and sandbags for weights. I'd do an hour of weight training at home in the morning. My uncle, in whose house I was living in Auckland, had built a sort of gym in the spare room, so I'd spend an hour doing callisthenics before I went to work. 

"At lunchtime I'd train at the Domain. I ran in army boots for 30-45 minutes. The theory was that when I didn't have the boots on, I'd feel like I was flying. It certainly did feel good without them! 

"Then after work I'd be back at the Domain, or at one of the other parks. I'd be watched by Jim Bellwood, my coach. He'd supervise my jumping technique, or my throwing. This session would last a couple of hours." 

She moved north from Dunedin to be with Mr Bellwood, as she always called her coach. 

Williams rose to national prominence by winning the national shot put title in 1947, but it was as a long jumper that she really excelled. She won the Empire Games long jump gold medal at Auckland in 1950 and then set her eyes on the Olympic Games two years later. 

At Helsinki, Williams was clearly the best jumper in the field, but gave her supporters heart-flutters by fouling her first two attempts and therefore being in danger of failing to record a distance. She completed a legitimate jump on her third attempt. The top six jumpers, including Williams, continued for three more attempts each and the New Zealander's fourth jump proved to be the winner. 

It was 40 years before another New Zealand woman, Barbara Kendall, won an Olympic Games gold medal.

Following her gold medal triumph, Williams returned from Helsinki a national hero and received the sort of public reception the All Blacks and America's Cup yachties were accorded decades later. 

There was a huge public reception in Auckland, and there were open car parades everywhere she travelled all the way south to Dunedin. 

Williams might have retired after Helsinki but for the lure of a trip to Vancouver for the 1954 Empire Games, where she won three gold medals. 

"I was very, very busy in Vancouver. I did three field events and also the hurdles. I remember one day having to run back and forth between the long jump pit and the discus. You had to be careful or you'd miss a round. I guess they were scheduled for the same afternoon because it was unusual for a jumper to also be a thrower." 

Williams retired before the 1956 Melbourne Olympics. She was married by then, to national basketball and softball representative Buddy Corlett, and her thoughts were drifting from athletics to starting a family - she and Buddy eventually raised four children, who all excelled at sport. 

She remained involved in sport, helping form the Pakuranga Athletic Club in 1967, and working as a physical education teacher at the Otahuhu and Diocesan schools. Her younger brother, Roy, won the 1966 Empire Games decathlon title. 

Yvette Williams was Sportsman of the Year twice, in 1950 and 1952, and was voted Athlete of the Decade for the 1950s. She was awarded an MBE in 1953 and was inducted into the New Zealand Sports Hall of Fame in 1990.

News and Blogs

Yvette Williams Scholarship Applications Open

15 April 2014

Exceptional young athletes can now apply for the inaugural Yvette Williams Scholarship, inspired by New Zealand’s first female Olympic gold medallist.