New Zealand has had very few memorable moments in international fencing, but Melody Ann Coleman (known to everyone as Dot) provided the best of them at the 1962 Perth Empire Games.
Coleman defied the intense heat and humidity to score a surprise win in the foil competition. Fencing was on the Empire/Commonwealth Games schedule from 1950-70.
Coleman, an Auckland postie, was a big name in New Zealand fencing in the early 1960s, having won the national foil title in 1961, but until her heroics in Perth, was virtually unknown in wider sports circles. She was one of the least-recognised members of the New Zealand team when it arrived in Perth, though that changed when she defied the classy English fencers to win New Zealand's first gold of the Games.
She later married an Australian, John Gard, and moved across the Tasman. At the 1966 Kingston Empire Games, she represented Australia and won a silver medal in the teams event.
She returned to New Zealand soon afterwards and made a later attempt to qualify for the 1970 Edinburgh Commonwealth games. The Games fencing trials were held just a fortnight after she had had a baby and though she competed, she did not get past the first round. By the time the team actually left for Edinburgh, she was again the country's top fencer. It was a pity the selectors did not pick her – she might well have picked up another medal for New Zealand in Edinburgh.
Coleman didn't have the best of luck with Games selectors. In 1964 she was chosen in the Australian team for the Tokyo Olympics, but was unable to go because she didn't meet residential qualifications.
She won her second national title in 1974 and continued competing until the Oceania games in 1975, when a knee injury caused her to retire.
She settled in Kerikeri in the Bay of Islands and ran a mail-order fencing clothing and equipment business for a time. One of her children, Kathie, became a leading representative fencer.
Coleman said the heat in Perth was unbelievable.
“Where we were competing, in an army drill hall, it was 104 degrees F [40 degrees C], and there was no air conditioning. It was sultry, oppressive and overpowering. I believe what really won me the gold medal was my fitness.
“Being a postie back in Auckland, I was walking 40 miles a week and was also running three nights a week, so by the time I got to Perth, I was very fit. That enabled me to handle the conditions a lot better than some of the others.
“The English women were the best technically, but they didn't like the heat.
“Before we started I never really entertained any thoughts of winning a medal. There were eight of us in the foil and I thought we were all pretty good. Obviously Gillian Sheen, the 1956 Olympic champion, stood out, but I thought that in the heat there it would be the Australians, rather than the English, who would be the most dangerous.”
Coleman slept only about three hours the night before her event as she fretted about her forthcoming competition. She finally dropped off to sleep about 3.30am, but was awake again by 6am. She had a sore throat and felt a bit under the weather with a cold, but rose to the occasion magnificently.
She said every bout was an endurance test. “I practically had to be helped off the piste after each one, swimming in perspiration and gasping for breath.
“As the day wore on and I won my bouts, the support for me grew. Our manager, Colin Kay, was there and so were a lot of other people. I lost to Janet Hopner of Australia 3-2, but won the rest.”
As the New Zealand team heard how well Coleman was faring, they rushed over and by the time she had her final bouts, the hall was full with 600 people in it, many of them New Zealanders calling out ‘C'mon Dottie'. She said that what really worried her was when team-mate Brian Pickworth told her before her last bout, against Jackie Reynolds, that if she didn't win, there would be a three-way tie for the lead. “In that tremendous heat, that was the last thing I wanted. The adrenalin was really running by then and I won 4-2.”
The little New Zealander secured a famous gold, with Australians Johanna Winter and Janet Hopner second and third. Coleman was chaired off the stage by her team-mates and became an instant celebrity in the New Zealand camp. New Zealand had made a habit of winning the first gold at Empire Games, and Coleman was pleased to have helped maintain that record.
“I was very pleased it was all over. It was extremely tiring and I suppose it didn't really sink in until the next day, when I was walking around the Games village looking at everyone preparing for their evens – thinking I'd already done what I went over there for.
“Everywhere I walked people would call out, ‘Hi Goldie' or ‘Hi Champ'. It was a bit bewildering to walk around among all those great athletes and already have a gold medal.”
Melody's Games History
Commonwealth Games Perth 1962