An outstanding athlete from the 1950s

By Tony Orman

To most younger New Zealanders the name will not mean anything, such is the passing of time from when in 1952, the young Otago woman Yvette Williams became the first New Zealand woman to win an Olympic gold medal. She won several Empire Game medals also.

It needs appreciating that Yvette Williams was a 100 percent amateur sportswoman in contrast to todays’ professional sporting figures, who often earn eye-watering multi-millions.  Yvette competed for the love of sport and personal accomplishment. Money was not in the equation.

Despite her fame as a super athlete and a gold winning Olympian, Yvette was humble and modest and yet with her love of life and passion for her sports, was out-going, enthusiastic and ebullient.

Challenging the norms

In those days the accepted norm for young women was to get married early, become a housewife and have children. Yvette quietly defied this expected course and chose to pursue her dreams. Some might cavil that too much of Yvette’s personal life is detailed but it has to be seen in the light of what those decades either side of the 1950s expected of young women. 

Personally I felt a page or two could have been devoted to Yvette’s husband ‘Buddy” Corlett – who by coincidence I knew. “Buddy” was a superb athlete too and was a dual international representing New Zealand in both indoor basketball and softball.

Nevertheless Ideals Are Like Stars is an absorbing biography of a trailblazing young athlete who defied the odds to win gold in the long jump at the Helsinki Olympics in 1952. 

 Well qualitied to write about Yvette Williams

Author Angela Walker [right], herself an Olympian gymnast at Seoul — 36 years after Yvette was in the Helsinki Games — is well qualified to write the biography of a super athlete. 

Remarkably Angela and Yvette shared a coach, the extraordinary Mrs Emmy Bellwood, even though the two Olympics that Yvette and Angela each competed at, were three and a half decades apart.

 Angela as a top athlete herself was able to relate to the rigors of daily training, the needs for discipline and determination in sticking to training schedules and meeting the mental challenge of competing at the Olympics. Angela is full of awe at Yvette’s “imperturbable temperament and fearlessness” which were a vital factor in her success at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics. The long jump was tense on the day and the author’s writing adeptly captures the drama that unfolded. Very little ever seemed to worry her,” comments the author in admiration.

The book is an engaging read which is enhanced by a section of excellent photographs. Highly recommended.

(Ideals are Like Stars is published by Bateman Books. RRP $39.99)