Australian Biography: Shirley Strickland de la Hunty
Resilient, determined and naturally talented, Shirley Strickland (1925–2004) was one of Australia's greatest athletes, winning seven medals in three successive Olympic games.
She continued as an athletics coach for many years. She was also an ardent conservationist, National Trust member and mother of four.
She was interviewed for Film Australia's Australian Biography series in 1995.
Interviewer: Robin Hughes
Recorded: January 19, 1995
This is a transcript of the complete original interview conducted for the Australian Biography project.
You were born on a farm in the wheat belt of Western Australia. What's you earliest memory from that farm?
I think the earliest memory would be growing up in a very isolated place with my family in a very tiny little wooden house with my four brothers and the bush which surrounded us pretty much in those days. Because they were pioneers - my mother and father were pioneers - and my father had to chop a lot of it down with an axe unfortunately.
And he cleared the land in order to farm it. What kind of farmer was it? What kind of a farm was it?
It was and still is, well it started being wheat. His first crop was hand-strewn wheat. I guess it was hand-tilled as well.
By him. Yes. And then when they could afford [it] - it might have been in the 1930s - they got sheep. And it's been wheat and sheep pretty much ever since.
It was a very small two-bedroom cottage, built of green timber, so the timber shrank, so there were spaces between, which meant that when my mother first went there - actually it was built after she went there - it was terribly cold in the winter and the milk would freeze on the kitchen table, and extraordinarily hot in the summer. But things improved as the years went by and we added a little bit to it, but unfortunately it's gone. It was a lovely little house, but very, very cold and I don't know how my mother managed.
What, how old was she when she went there?
She would have been in her thirties. She went there in 1920-21. Just before - I think she was 29 when she went there.
She was born in America actually of [an] English father, English engineering father, and a Norwegian mother. And being an engineer he was transferred around the world, and then she spent a lot of time in Norway, and came out here during World War 1 to mind her ... Actually they came to New South Wales at the turn of the century, again for engineering and mining. She then went back to Norway and England and came out in World War 1 to help her sister whose husband was at the war, to help them mind their children.
And how did she meet your father?
In Guildford, she met him as one of the friends of the families in Guildford.
And did she know what it was going to be like on the farm?
No, she didn't. I don't think anyone could. But of course standards were different then than they are now. She was just so excited about marriage and going on the farm and starting a new life. Of course no one then knew how difficult the north-eastern wheat belt was. But she went, she had some money that was sent to her by her father for a dowry, and while she was identifying herself to the bank manager, he said, 'Why, what are you going to do with this money?' And she said, 'I'm marrying a farmer, it's for my dowry'. And he said, 'May God have mercy on your soul'. She often recounted that story in later years when life got very, very tough.
I think he was, but they weren't to know in those days the sort of things that could happen to people in that situation. Of course my father believed you just had to be a big strong man with lots of energy and the will to succeed, and you would succeed. But he hadn't counted for varying rainfall, floods, droughts, depression, poison, all the things that can happen, and it finally broke his health.
Well he came from Victoria during the gold rush with his father, and eventually with his whole family. They lived in Kalgoorlie for a while. They came across in the 1890s, and then finally turned to farming, but he also of course was well known as being a very good athlete and he actually did boxing I'm told too. But in Kalgoorlie in those wild and woolly days you did everything, so he was a cyclist, he was a boxer, he was a champion sprinter, won the famous Stawell Gift and then finally turned to farming.
Now how old were the brothers and sisters in the family? Where did you all come?
My eldest brother was five when I was born. And I ...
I think all the mothers would come down to the city for the birth. Come down to Guildford for the birth, so, but they were on the farm when he was born. My mother took him home in a four wheeled dray, rolled up in newspaper, because it was February, very, very hot. So things changed a lot. But five years later I was born, and then I have two younger brothers and I'm the only girl in that family. I had, I actually had four brothers, but one died at the age of four.
So that wasn't very long before the Depression really began to affect ...
How did that affect life on the farm?
It was disastrous really. Unfortunately, well fortunately for me I was not aware of much of it, because my mother and my father were the ones with all the worry and the hard work. But, I always knew there was enough to eat, we could always grow food. We were never hungry. I had three thousand acres to roam in. We lived on initially kangaroos, and then rabbits, the odd emu, and it wasn't until quite late that we actually got sheep and were eating mutton as well. But I didn't know too much about that. It was just a wonderful upbringing for a healthy child. I mean I didn't have any of the - we learned lessons by correspondence which my mother also controlled. I went to a little primary school that they managed to acquire from another wheat belt area for three years, and then of course I virtually left home at twelve to go to Northam High School.
In that time that you were growing up in this idyllic childhood what was it, do you think, about it that made it in your memory so terrific? [INTERRUPTION]
It sounds like a very tough childhood and yet you talk about it as if it were a really good one. What was it about it that made you love it so much?
I think the elements of a family, a close family, and a very free life, and the close to nature type of the life. As I said before I think it was very tough on my parents. How they did the things they did, I don't know, but for me it was just fun. I had no school much to worry about, I could go out with the sheep, I was in charge of the lambs. I could go chasing kangaroos with my brothers. It was a really rich sort of an environment for a child to grow up in in my opinion, and very hard for me to try and reflect those important elements when I had to bring up my own city children. And when people comment about the primary school children who have to do homework and things like that, I think, why do they have to do that? We really have to have another look at how we bring young children up, I think.
What do you feel, that homework deprives them of the freedom that you had?
And yet you had all those chores to do?
Well chores are fine. I mean I used to have to do the - get the eggs and all, that was all part of being a team. I could carry a bag of oats on my back when I was ten years old. I couldn't believe it now. And I couldn't do it now. But that was that team work, and the fact that I wasn't sitting for, as young children now do, something like five hours in school, then coming home, and then sitting for another couple of hours doing homework. That didn't happen to me, and I do not believe it affected my education, both informal and formal. [INTERRUPTION]
Life there was physically good for your development, but what about mentally? Do you think that this freedom to roam is also good for a child's mental development?
I suspect it is probably more important than the physical. I grew up with no inhibitions about what I should or shouldn't do. Nobody told me what I couldn't do. I could - I was allowed to do anything my brothers did. So when I left the farm, virtually to go to my secondary education, and then finally down to [the] University of Western Australia, I didn't realise women weren't supposed to do certain things. I mean I was one of the team and I think mentally and physically it was a great way to grow up.
And you were the only girl there with the three boys. Was that true of the district as well? Were there many girls?
It was very much of a male district. Most of - I was the only girl at school at one particular stage, at my little primary school.
Oh there would have been between 6 and 20. And then we had one or two girls later. But I can remember riding my horse to school because we had horses by then, and I decided to ride in my brother's pants, and I can remember being ribbed by all the boys about that, why - and I couldn't see any reason why anyone would want to ride in a skirt. It was one of my earliest memories of women's lib I suppose.
Now it was interesting that in your family you were given that freedom to be like the boys, because as the only girl, it's surprising your mother didn't recruit her - you - for all the female tasks?
What were the female tasks? We did everything. I mean I did also learn how to cook, but we were farm workers. I'd - as I said, I could drive all the vehicles except the big tractors by the time I was nine or ten. I never ever had a test for a driving licence. All the children in that area when they turned 17 automatically got a driving licence. So it was just so free. And I suspect my mother also was determined that the girls weren't going to - the girl was going to be treated the same as the boys. This is one of the reasons that I'm educated, was because my mother - the bank managers in those days would advance - when we were heavily under the banks for loans - they controlled everything we did, absolutely everything - they told my mother they would not advance money for my education to go away from the farm. They said, 'We'll do it for the boys, but keep the girl on the farm'. My mother must have been an independent minded lady. What she did was feed pigs on the side, make butter and sell it locally. Made enough money on the side so that I was able to go to Northam High School. I think that is a most important thing that that woman did for me. And that's one of the reasons why I have such enormous respect for informal and formal education.'
Now your father had been an athlete himself, and you were the one in the family who went on to make a name in athletics. Did he teach you anything? And did he teach the boys too?
Well he was really too old to be a teacher. And you must remember that when I was on the farm there was no school sports at all - no school sports, no interschool sports. And that was something that came later when I went down to Northam High School. So that he didn't really teach us, except to - when we could get him to talk about his history, and he was enormously interested in our sport. And my brothers, of course, were very good sports people, all three of them. My eldest brother who left school quite early to come home and run the farm at age 16 when my father's health failed, he just - he brought us up virtually, he ran the whole farm on his own as a teenager. But he was a champion at Guildford Grammar School.
My second brother was a state champion athlete as well, and my third brother was also a state champion athlete. But each of those boys had either farm responsibilities, or their engineering career which took them around the world. And I was the one that sort of stayed here in the post-war period - opportunistically when 1948 Games popped up I was looking for things to do. I already had my education. I was already an honours graduate in science, in nuclear physics, so I didn't have any of those things around. It was very fortunate for me that the Games came up at just that time. I got into it very easily, and then I - it was just such an exciting way to go.
Now back there on the farm, what do you think it was that made you so good at physical things?
I think we - I just grew up in a physical world, a very physical environment. I think I grew up with the right hemisphere brain probably far better developed than the left hemisphere brain. I was spontaneous, we were never short of food. I used to eat as much as the working men would eat. My mother could never satisfy me. But I was so active. We all were. We all grew up very big and strong. And I'm sure it was the physical environment and the abundance of food. We couldn't even sell it at times. And we were impoverished in other ways in which we couldn't buy new clothes. And clothes went round and round the family, with other cousins and things. Books were - once every two weeks I would read a comic strip that was my whole library. And that came in the old Broadcaster. One little strip. And I'd read it very, very slowly to make it last. And I still read slowly.
You didn't have books in the house at all?
No books at all. Mother might have had some old books in - in the cupboard, but there were nothing like libraries or stories, that was all being told to us, well through what other means we could get. There was no librarian type thing, no supply of books. We were very, very poor, I have to tell you. Rich in many things, but very poor.
I used to wear second-hand things, pants. My mother of course was a marvellous dressmaker. She made everything for us. She also was the first woman spinner. She was a spinster, but don't get the wrong impression. She is known throughout Western Australia for her spinning expertise, which she developed during World War I to supply wool for the women to knit for the Australian forces. And so she was a marvellous spinner and she would spin our clothes, all our underclothes, my dresses or our pants. She would make shoes out of lambskin and they were just beautiful little shoes, out of lambskin. She was just a creative woman. And such a hardworking woman.
How did she get time to do all of this if she was also working on the farm?
I don't know, she used to make all our own bacon, all our butter, all our bread. If - before we had any freezing storage for meat - if we killed a sheep, she'd have to cook it all in one day, so that it would keep. She had to wash by hand, with very little rainwater. That was very scarce, used to wash all the sheets and clothes by hand. How she did it I don't know.
Now as time went by on this pioneering farm, did things get better materially for the family, or did they get worse?
They ebbed and flowed as I explained. We had floods. We had not so much fire, but we had poison which would kill the stock. We had the enormous Depression, which was just about the end for them.
Well. The poison in the bush, if you allowed stock to get into the bush. And of course most of the farm was bush. You would - and if you didn't know what poison was - you would lose a lot of stock. During droughts my mother had the - my mother and my brother at that stage - had the dreadful job of watching the cattle and the horses die. So that, those were ... [INTERRUPTION]
So did things get better or worse for your parents on the farm?
They got better at times and then worse because of all of those factors that can take place. And of course one of the bad things that happened was that my mother lost her youngest child. And that was really quite tragic. He apparently had an accident and - that they didn't know about - and he died in extreme heat. So that there were ups and downs all the time. But then, as - and my father's health failed. But then my mother brought my father down to Perth because she also had the other three children down here, and my brother then took on the farm. As I said he was very young. And then things started to steady down. But you can't even say that even now [with] farming everything goes smoothly. Those factors still, except for the things like poison which is to do with uncleared bush, and depression; we're still having those sorts of things happen now. But he has married, and they have stabilised the farm to some extent. They, like many farmers, are looking for different things than wheat and sheep because both of those can let you down. But they're still there and my nephew is now running the farm with his father, and they're bringing up children, and I think the farm environment to bring children up in is an excellent one. I think that's one of the reasons farmers persist with a very, very difficult lifestyle. I mean it's a gamble, isn't it? It's a real gamble, farmers have to be prepared to take enormous risks. It's partly it's because the lifestyle, as distinct from city lifestyle, is such an excellent way to bring up children. They now of course have better roads, power, water's laid on. They can get very quickly to the major cities where it used to take us two hours to get to the town to buy food or whatever you wanted. Things are so much better now, but still the element of risk is still there. And that's taken place, I suppose, steadily over the last 30 years.
What sort of things did you get into trouble for on the farm?
I can't remember getting into trouble very much at all.
Well no, I suppose I was not. But there was - you know discipline didn't seem to be a problem. It didn't seem to be a factor where we were team workers, but I did get into trouble once for lying, and I'll never forget that. We had been down at the dam. And you know what dams are like for kids. They attract children when they've got water in them. But also they're pretty dangerous, because in those sorts of fresh water dams the water is not clear, so you could lose a child in a dam, and you wouldn't have any idea where they are. So I was - we were down at the dam chasing dragonflies. And my brother threw his hat at one and it went in the water, so I went in to pull the hat out. And then of course, we - I was wet, so I had to take all my clothes off, lie on the hot rocks and dry off, and when I went home for some reason my mother asked me whether we'd been in the dam, and I said, 'No'. And I was in terrible trouble because I don't know whether the brothers told on me or not, but I had told a lie, and I remember my mother saying to me, 'Your father is so upset because you told him a lie'. I never forgot it. But also I used to get in trouble with the boys, for I used to dob on the boys. And they'd go and pinch Mum's green peas out of the garden. And I'd go and tell her. They didn't like that.
No, no, you can't dob on them, no. So, with this whole period of your childhood what was happening about your education?
Every two weeks my mother would receive correspondence lessons, and I had to get them back in two weeks. That meant very little work I have to tell you, and it got difficult for Mum sometimes to even get us to sit down. Particularly at busy times, when we were shearing and it was all hands on deck. And I was the one that used to tread the wool down into the corners of the bales. Or, you know, functions like that. It was very difficult for us to sit down. We became such good workers on the farm that sometimes my mother had to put her foot down, and make us sit down and do a little bit of work, and get these jolly correspondence classes back on the next mail which would be a fortnight later.
Now you've talked a lot about your mother on the farm. What about your father? What role did he play in your life?
I don't remember as much about my father's early time, because I was younger, but his - after - when I think about it he was quite an old man when he went on the farm. He must have been 44 or 45 years old.
How old was he when you were born?
Well, five years later, 51 I suppose it was. My mother didn't realise how old he was. But nevertheless I think that his health then failed, mentally rather than physically. I think he was very arthritic, but I think it just depressed him so much that with all the work and everything he tried to do, we were failing, and so he more or less took a back seat, particularly when my brother took over the farm, but the old man got very bitter. And I can just remember him really lying around and not doing very much, until I went away to school. I got to know my dad better when we - he came down to Perth and they actually lived on this property here. But he was by then quite an old man, and I think really he had lost a lot of self-esteem and confidence through that. So Mother really was the one who stepped in there, 14 years younger than Dad, but she also stepped in with enormous mental and physical strength. And carried us through with our education and our formative periods, and through the wartime when we couldn't find any accommodation in Perth, and she - how she handled all of these many problems, I just don't know.
Was it her decision that your brother would take your father's place on the farm?
No, it was my brother's decision. But there was no option, no other option. There was either, let the farm go - and it was worth nothing. It at least was a roof over our heads, at least we could eat there. There was no other decision that they could possibly [make], but it would have been quite impossible for my brother to carry on with the farm, if my father was there. Because he was totally destructive with the decision-making process. So it was either my brother taking over the farm, or us finding - I don't know. There wasn't any social security in those days - her taking her brood somewhere else. Goodness knows where.
Your father's loss of heart, was that recognised as some kind of a breakdown in him, or was it just ...?
It wasn't at the time. I think we just knew that Dad couldn't handle it any more. But he wasn't just taking a back seat he was really, poor man, very bitter, and I think it's a common thing now. I think if you checked with other people of that era and that history, you'd find it's a common thing. Very, very embittering for a man to totally fail in that situation. And I can understand a lot better now than I could at that time. The stress and the trauma that he was going through, but I also understand the enormous sacrifice my brother made to really keep us going.
With the death of your young brother - was he the youngest in the family?
Yes he was.
He died at four. Four years old.
Well it was a very busy time - it was - mother had just sent us all back to school. I'd just gone back to Northam. It was February which is a terrible month, and she was so busy trying to handle the heat and my father, and she then discovered this child was ill. He was saying, 'It's hard in there where I've bumped my head'. And in thinking about it afterwards, she thinks he must have fallen in the toolshed where he loved to play with the tools, and bumped his head, and may have become unconscious. But by the time they got him to hospital - it was record, searing heat - and he - the doctors couldn't quite tell what to do with him. And it was so hot they couldn't cool him. And he finally died, but they think it was probably some type of meningitis, probably injury caused. That's the best the doctor up there could do, because we were lucky to even have a doctor up there. We - for quite a few years there was no doctor there - my mother was nurse and doctor for a lot of the time in the early days. If anyone got hurt they'd come and she'd patch them up.
How did you hear about your brother's death?
I was at school, and matron came to tell me about my brother's death. I found that very difficult (cries) - sorry - but ...
You still feel it now, emotionally?
Do you think - was that the first experience of someone close to you dying?
I was 13.
Was it a very emotional stage of your life to have something like that happen within the family?
Well, to your family, yes, because you know you don't ever expect anything like that's going to happen. But, the matron was busy - she didn't quite know how to handle it. What she did was put me in a room and leave me on my own. It was the worst possible thing.
It was, yes. Do you think that was fairly standard at the time though? People found it difficult to give you the opportunity to express emotion when you should, so it always then just stays with you.
Well I think everyone did their best. Certainly my mother didn't want me home again at that stage, she had too much to handle, but I think they all did their best.
Was that a sort of turning point too, do you think, for your mother and father - over how they were going to proceed from that point on?
Oh I don't think so, I think it was already - destiny was already moving along, and my brother was there in charge.
And so for you, at the time you finished school, you finished primary school, and your mother had organised for you to go off to high school ...
To Northam, yes.
... which required a big effort on her part, did you have a terrific sense of responsibility in doing well, with her sacrifices?
Well I suppose so. I didn't realise then how much she had done for me, and just what - how I was going to appreciate it in later life. I hated being away from home. I hated it until I was 17 years old. I hated leaving school at 12 years old - leaving home at 12 years old - that's virtually what I did. Because after that I would go home for holidays, and that's all. And, you know, you virtually left home.
When you were at home, home was everything, wasn't it? I mean, what contact did you have with anybody else in the district?
Very little to start with. I didn't know anybody in the district, but I did know one or two of my cousins who would come up to the farm for holidays - went and stayed with us during holiday time. Until we went to that little primary school with those few children, I didn't know anybody else really, except my own brothers, and we would go to the little township, I suppose, every two weeks. During the war we couldn't even - we would only go once a month - there wasn't the fuel.
Bethara. And we would - and if we ever had any - as I grew older - if we ever went to one of the beautiful country dances that used to be around in those days, we would go on a communal vehicle. We would all go to the road, get ourselves to the roadway, and then pick up the car seats, put the car seats on the back of the truck, and then we'd all go to the - because no-one had the fuel to go more than once a month for - so we used to come by that way.
But it sounds like tremendous fun?
Well they were fantastic fun. But I was only a little person. But I learned to dance, to ballroom dance at a very early age.
When did you discover that you could run?
I don't really know when I discovered I could run. I used to, of course, run with the boys, and did a lot of chasing of kangaroos and rabbits and sheep and things like that. And of course I didn't wear shoes until I was - well, I had to go to high school, and they nearly crippled me, I have to tell you. But I think that probably chasing around on the farm, I wasn't aware that I couldn't run. I didn't have any competitive running until I went to high school. And then once every year we'd have sports day, and I was instantly successful there, so that's when I first became aware I was a competitive runner, and of course my father was highly delighted.
Well just because I entered into the junior championship, and won it easily. The next year I entered both the junior and the senior in my second year and won both of those too, which was a bit greedy. But that's when I started to realise that I had speed, that I hadn't recognised as being of anything more than just part of life.
When you were running around on the farm in bare feet, wasn't that painful?
Yes, with the 'double gees', but you get very tough little feet, and you learn the patches where the 'double gees' are, and - my feet grew very, very strong, my ankles grew strong, when I ... In coaching athletes as I've done for some 30 or 40 years, I believe that my training on the farm, with my natural feet, my strong ankles, has stood me in very good stead for later championships and competitive sport that I entered into. Very hard for me to get my city athletes to develop that strength because they haven't had that sort of background. But also it was very hot. If we couldn't afford to come down to the coast for a holiday, we had to stay on the farm, and I have to say that quite often it was over the old 100 degrees for 12 hours of the day, and all we had were waterbags - the old waterbags - and endless tea to drink, so that it really was - we were really torched in the summer, but we learned to run very fast over the hot ground - I don't think that had any effect. But you could twinkle-toes between the hot old house and the bush shed that we used to practically live in during the summer, and it never took me very long to get from one to the other.
When you went to school and started wearing shoes, that actually caused you more pain than running barefoot?
Well, it did. Yes, it really developed bunions or bumps on the back of my heels. I can remember walking to school with my toes in my shoes and my heels out, because my feet hurt so much from having to wear shoes. They probably weren't the best designed shoes in the world, I don't know, but certainly I hated them. And they did leave me with some very, very sore spots on my heels.
Now that first sports day, where you discovered that you could beat others, did that introduce you to a sort of elation in winning, as well?
Yes, I think it did. I think also what has happened with me, and I wasn't the only - I mean the school was full of country kids, I wasn't the only country kid in the place - but what it created for me - I had gone to school with really no social skills at all, I couldn't talk very much. When I was - while I was interested in boys, I couldn't flirt, didn't know how to flirt, so I had to - I found that it gave me an identity, and I think that happened in the next - after that particular time right through my sporting career, that it gave me an identity and a way of expressing myself that filled the lack of social skills which is one of the downsides of such an isolated upbringing. And of course it forced me - well the opportunity to travel came - it forced me to talk to people. I really was dropped in the deep end when it was talking to people. Everybody wanted to talk to me after I came back from an Olympics, and I had - that helped me to learn, you know, inter-communication skills.
So it was really at Northam High that it was clear that athletics was going to be a path you could follow. And it gave you an identity. When did you actually first enter major competition?
In 1947 post-war - because during the war there was no sport.
And by this stage you were - at what stage of the rest of your life?
I was then Bachelor of Science with honours, but I had also had the opportunity of once a year having sports at the university. Sport didn't - in - the normal sporting that we look at today didn't exist. But the university used to have a sporting day, and I used to play hockey there. I can remember we went to Adelaide for an intervarsity hockey, and none of us had shoes, because shoes were in scarce supply. You couldn't buy them. We wore these little short skirts, and I think we made quite an impact in Adelaide because they were still in the long shirts [sic], and the long-sleeved brigade. There were these bare-footed people from - and we won. It was quite, quite amazing, but that was ... So the first organised sport apart from university faculty stuff was in 1947 when they had the men's championships in Western Australia. That's the very beginning of what was pre-war organised sport. And they had some events for women, and I went in those and won.
So that organised sport was suspended during the war, which were your late teenage years?
And my early twenties.
And your early twenties, and during that period you actually didn't have any opportunity whatsoever to compete except at university?
No really - I think that if I had the time or the interest I could do a little bit of research on the downside of introducing children too early into organised individual sport. I think there's a lot of benefits in organised team sports of the way we're seeing happening in today's world. But to have children in organised individual sports, I think too early, I still think is a disadvantage. I think they ... I was far more suited to it having had a very active life, and an active life during the war too because I was very, very busy there. We had various war duties to do - I also used to try and - in my study - I was influenced by a teacher at high school who had introduced me to the concept of the Greek ideal of fitness of mind and body. And teachers sometimes make a long lasting and important impression on their students - but that stayed with me, and I thought I wanted to test my both sides.
I wanted to test my physical and my mental sides, and without actually making that as a deliberative decision. That's why I think I was the only one of my class to go to UWA. All of the other girls - and boys I suppose - I don't know where the boys went to - all the other girls went to nursing or teaching. I didn't do that. I wanted to get into something where I could really pursue information. I wanted - I really was so hungry to know what was going on with the world. So that influenced me. So I went two ways. I went both academically, and also wanted to test my physical boundaries as well. So 1948 - the Games - they had trials for them in 1948. I was successful in those trials. So almost instantly I was into the Olympics. But I'm sure the fact that I was new to the sport, had developed my physical and mental capacity, I was adult by then, I was well organised, clearly focused, and I suspect that that was why I was so successful.
So what others might have seen as a disadvantage, that they weren't able to develop and have that competition, you see as actually having advantaged you?
I think that if you look through some of the histories of our top sporting people in the last 20 or 30 years you'll find a similar story, that coming into the sport late, and a little bit older, is an advantage. And I think we lose of our sporting talent - if that's important - and I think it is to some people and certainly to the people themselves - by pushing them too early. And then expecting them to be disciplined into the sport before they're really ready to. I mean, what's a teenaged child? It's an embryo human. We put the greatest pressures on our mid-teenagers - academically, socially, and sport-wise, just when they're not ready to, when they're really growing fast, they've got social pressures, they've got, genetic pressures. And I don't think we're doing it right.
So, by luck, you felt that it was done right for you. So how old were you when you went off to the 1948 Olympics?
Twenty-two. I turned 23 there.
By today's standards really old.
Yes well when I came back in 1948 the coach who was helping me at that particular stage said, 'This is this time to retire. You're at your top'. And I didn't feel really that I was ready to retire. It had been so enormously exciting and interesting. Or that I wanted to retire.
Well tell me about how you got selected for the '48 Olympics, and what the world was like? [INTERRUPTION]
So what happened with the '48 Olympics? How were you selected? And what was the atmosphere in Australian sport at that time, immediately post-war, in terms of a sort of professional approach to going about sending an Olympic team away?
Well the selection was based on world standards, and they didn't rank individual sports. We were all ranked together. And I was enormously flattered and honoured, but also intimidated by the fact that I was number one in that list. And then the extent ...
On my world hurdles time, compared with what they knew was in the other countries. So I then was selected as number one, and I found that not only an honour, but responsibility, because I felt that if anyone did well, I had to do well. But anyhow I finished up doing quite well, so there wasn't any real problem there. [INTERRUPTION]
You were the number one athlete setting off for a team to the 1948 Olympics. Where were they held?
In London, in post-war London.
We flew there, but it took us, I think, three days. And we overnighted at various places. And then while we were in London we were - or in Britain for a couple of months was it - 6 weeks or two months before the Games. We picked up any competition we could around the country and stayed in various places. But of course I was absolutely stunned with the - being where this enormous damage had taken place in London. I mean, we didn't stay in any place that wasn't still heavily damaged. And the British were still heavily under restrictions for food. We even took a lot of food but it didn't get past the Customs - all our steaks disappeared. But it was quite an experience to be in that sort of an environment, that post-war environment, because I had been very well aware of the dreadful war that had been taking place in Europe, and following it avidly - with the horror - to be there in that place was an enormous education and experience for me. Of course we also travelled into Europe, and to parts of Europe that had been heavily damaged too.
And was there good camaraderie in the team?
Oh the team was fine. Yes, we were all very excited. We were young people. I think that was the trip that we went through Cairo. And nearly got caught - well I didn't know we nearly got caught - but we were supposed - we were on - it was under martial control - under military control. We weren't supposed to leave the hotel. But one of the porters told us that, 'Oh the team's already gone you know, would you like me to take you?' And they took us all around the - the pyramids, and the camels, and to a market, and we bought some nice material. We got home - the place was in an uproar because we were missing. Had we been caught we would have been incarcerated I suppose. We had some exciting times on that, just even getting there.
Enormously exciting. Because I didn't know what the Olympic Games was all about. In the last Games - which was 1936 - and to be in London was just fantastic, to be in Wembley Stadium. The first day was absolutely marvellous. It was 90 degrees, the old 90 degrees Fahrenheit, and we had this very, very exciting day, and of course the British people were there absolutely packed out, it was such a new, new world really after the terrible war they'd been through.
Really it was. Yes. I think there were very few countries - I can't recall immediately how many countries there were, but very few compared with today's number of countries. And very few people, because most of Europe was still down on its knees. But they still had people like Fanny Blankers Cohen who beat me in two events - three events. But it was very exciting. And I just came home feeling I was successful even though I hadn't won any gold medals.
Was there an expectation that you would win? What did the crowd - and what were the expectations in England about you - coming from Australia? Did they recognise that you might be a threat to the established queens of athletics?
Well, I don't think they expected me to be terribly good, and I remember Harold Abrahams, who was a reporter in those days, and he was one of those whose - about whose life they made Chariots of Fire - so that was quite amazing for me to see that film in later years. But he wrote up that I was really not up to Olympic standard. I was very rough too, he wasn't wrong. But after the Olympic Games he came to my manager and apologised. He said, 'She's a very fine athlete'. So it was very nice to have him come back and make that comment.
When you say you were rough, you mean you hadn't had the benefit of coaching?
My technique was very rough. I was a big rough girl anyhow. Tall and you know angular. And I hadn't done much hurdling, I mean I'd only had one year of hurdling. And my sprinting was pretty rough too. But I managed just through sheer strength, I think, to do the things I did.
What events did you compete in?
I competed in all of the track events. In those days there were only four track events for women totally - they were all sprint events, and that was the ...
Well women weren't encouraged to do more in the Olympics, and you should read the history of women's participation in the Olympic Games. It's quite eye-opening. This fantastic man, the father of modern Olympics, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, who I had thought was an idol, he had tried to keep women out of the Olympics, [or] to [do] anything more than, as he quoted it, 'clapping hands and awarding the rewards', and described women as the 'regrettable impurity'. But we had only four track events total and I was in all four. That's all women could do. And that persisted for quite a long time. I never competed internationally in anything more than those four events; that's the 100 metres, the 200 metres, the 80 metres hurdles, and the four by one relay.
So throughout your sporting lifetime, that was all that was available to you?
That was all that was available. And every two years a Commonwealth Games or an Olympic Games. Nothing else. So that it's a far cry to the opportunities that the young women athletes of today have. They have opportunities every year; the Northern summer, the Southern summer, world championships, competitions every - you know - many, many competitions. But I'm not unhappy about that, because I think that it worked for me. And during my Olympic career, I got married, I had two children. It was only[with] the third child that finally I decided he was more important than the Olympics that - and I was then 31 years old - 35 years old - when he was born. So that you know I think it worked for me because I had - when you look at it, I had my education that didn't get in the way. I had a career if I wanted it. I was able to marry and still carry on through the sympathy of my husband. He was not happy about it, but because he was away so much of the year himself, he justified it and said, 'Well, we'd better be tolerant about this'. And I had the ability to have a child which ... I mean I didn't plan my children but they came at very convenient times.
So back at the '48 Olympics before all this had happened, you were competing in all of these events. How did you do? Could you describe each one and how you experienced it as a young athlete?
You mean in 1948?
Well I finished up with four medals. I finished up with a third in the 100, a third in the hurdles. I actually should have had a third in the 200, but apparently they misjudged that one, and a second in the relay. That was my record for 1948. Back here in Western Australia where we had our own women's championships - or combined championships - I used to go for the high jump and the shotput and the javelin throw and the discus throw - anything, all the track and field events as well. But I realised that, after London, that I had to try and concentrate on fewer events, and so in 1952 I didn't enter in the 200 metres. I don't think I could have been chosen for it. But I didn't want to go in the 200 metres, because I wanted to do the hurdles, and win the hurdles which I did, and then I narrowed it down further again - to the 100 - well again, the same three, the 100 metres, the 80 metres hurdles and the four by one relay, so I became more specialised.
In 1948 did you get to know Fanny Blankers Cohen who was your major rival at that time?
No, I didn't get to know her. I knew who she was. But I didn't get to know her. For two reasons: one is that our paths never crossed before the Games; secondly, her coach wasn't very interested in her getting to know me. I mean that's part of coaching technique I suppose. And I don't suppose I would have wanted to get too close in any case. I ...
Well, I don't know. These days watching the television and the sporting people - the tennis players for instance - they say, 'We're friends,' but - everyone seems to know each other. There's a lot more travelling, and communicating, then. But I used to have a tough ... I never ever felt that I wanted to beat anybody, I just wanted to win. I don't know if you can understand the difference there?
No, I'd like you to explain it to me.
Well the British found it very hard to understand me because they thought - I stayed in Britain for three months after those Games and subsequent Games - and they couldn't understand why I seemed to be a person who wanted to win. And then I had to start thinking about what their problem was. And I think they thought I wanted to win too much. As far as I was concerned - unless I wanted to win a lot, there wasn't much point in doing it. And also I thought it wasn't really fair to my competitors - to the people who were competing against me - if I didn't want to win. I mean, what's the point? So I found there was a difference between being competitive, wanting to win, and not wanting to beat anybody. So that I was tunnel visioned. When I just - when I was competing, it's an enormous pressure, an enormous psychological pressure.
And fortunately for me that always produced an exceptional performance, if I was able to do that. So it worked for me. It doesn't work for everybody, but it worked for me to be totally concentrated, on my lane, the job at hand, in the hands of the starter. I didn't decide when I started. He did or she did. And so that it had to be a total concentration. And if you made one mistake, touched one hurdle - that's enormous pressure.
Had you had the benefit of any coaching or advice about techniques at all at that stage?
Well, yes I had. Not in hurdles so much, I had in sprinting. I'd had - several people had helped me with my sprinting. But in those days you didn't have a coach, and I didn't train all year. I would only train in the summer time. I'd play hockey in the winter time. It wasn't the sort of full one to one type of training that you have today. But in hurdles, by the time I became a good hurdler, I was already a married woman and a mother, and my time wasn't terribly easy to arrange. I was also working at times. So I had to train when it suited me, and I was the only one that knew anything about hurdling by that time. So I had to use all sorts of techniques such as watching my shadow.
Well if you align your hurdles properly, you can see what you're doing by your shadow. Getting people to look for me where I touched down. And also, being a physicist, I knew all about bio-mechanics, and levers, and how to get levers moving fast. So, you know I had - I did a lot of that myself, and really that's the basis of the coaching that I've been doing for so many more years since.
So you thought of your legs as levers?
Well they are levers. And my arms as levers, and the body as a lever and the head controlling the body. All of that - it just, you know physics was such an enormous help to me in working out how best to go from A to B.
Did it translate into any other practical things that you did, relating to your clothing, or your food, or anything that you did to prepare?
Yes, clothing. Because of physics I wanted the least possible weight to carry. My father I remember telling me that when as a professional runner they wanted to run a little dead, they put half an ounce of lead in their shoes. I don't know whether he did it or others did it or not. And I thought that well that makes sense because it's the end of the lever and it makes an enormous difference on your path. So the reverse applied to me. I had the lightest possible shoes. They were made of Tasmanian wallaby, poor little animals. Beautiful shoes, you couldn't buy shoes as good today. I had my clothing down to the very minimum. Not quite Flo-Jo's minimum, but I had cut my shorts right back so that they fitted into my muscle structure. I took all the heavy zips out. You know, all of those things just to ... It's partly a mental attitude, it's also partly relieving the body of any extra weight. And I also dropped my weight right down to a very low weight. When I really wanted to perform well, I was very, very lean. So that's all physics, really, based on physics. Not much physiology in it. I didn't know too much about physiology, except that what you ate might put on weight, and so on.
Did you have any particular approach to how you prepared yourself just in the immediate period before the Games began?
Yes, Professor Frank Cotton, who was probably one of the first, if not the first, physiologists, did talk to me about a variety of things. He was very interested in physiology, and psychology.
In relation to sport. And he suggested - in fact I found his letter only recently, one of his letters - he told me about the likely benefits of restraining your training for several days beforehand, and he gave me several examples of people who'd done this and so I tried that out, and I found it worked for me. It meant not doing any training the whole week before a big competition. And that's also an enormous strain, because all my competitors and my team mates are out there training hard, you know right, almost till the day. Now I'm sitting back there wondering whether I'm doing it right. But it always worked for me. So having got that, what I considered a magic formula, or equation, I never was prepared to change that. So every time I had a big race I would take a week off beforehand.
What's the theory behind that?
I don't know what the theory is particularly, but he did talk about the build-up of nervous energy and brain cells. I don't know that anybody's done any study on that since. We do a lot of study of the brain in a variety of other ways, but whether they've done any study about that ... But he talked about that, and certainly it meant that when I was out there I was fully tuned and fully honed - and physically, but also my brain was ready to go.
There wasn't any danger of fall-off of muscle tone?
Well the only danger you could have - well I would have - was putting on weight and I made darned sure that I didn't do that.
Scales were always there, and I was very careful what I ate and the scales were always there. In fact nervous energy used to strip the weight off me and it still does. If I get nervous enough the weight just falls off.
In London in 1948 it must have been easy to do without food then if you were - because there wouldn't have been much of it about, I imagine?
Well, look London was a bit different. We - then we were compelled to eat what we were supplied with in the hotels, the British hotels or wherever we stayed, and because the British were so short of food, I think they had potato in everything from soup right through to sweets, and some of us did put on - that's one time when I did put on weight. The times when I started to control my weight were the subsequent years. I put on weight there, some of us put on a lot of weight. It's very hard to control when there was nothing else to eat.
What do you like to eat in the run-up before a big competition? What did you prefer to eat?
I - my particular pattern was not to have the traditional steak or whatever - some people think they need to do [it] - I didn't again, because I wanted to be light and not have my digestion interfering with my performance. I liked to run hungry, and I would have, in the morning if I was running in the afternoon, a light mid-morning meal of dry boiled rice and stewed fruit, and that would - was easily digested, had disappeared from my gut by the time I was ready to run, and was perfect.
You used these methods through the rest of your Olympic career, these basic ...
Yes, but ...
Now that sounds as if you had a fairly independently worked out regime. Did this independence of mind ever bring you into conflict with those who were managing you?
I was never a rebel. In fact I was the captain of the team in two Olympics, so the only conflict I had with officials was perhaps in technique. I was captain of the team in Melbourne and they wanted us to have relay changes in a certain pattern. And I didn't say no, but I did a bit of arguing, and with the support of the girls, because I knew what relay changing was about. And I knew that if we were going to do the change that they were suggesting we were going to be laughed at, because all the European teams were doing a better change. So we managed to politically work our way around that one, and did the change we wanted to, and won our gold medal. But it was a bit of a difficult situation trying to keep all the people happy and have no-one lose face.
For you what was the highlight of the '48 Olympics?
The highlight I suppose would have been standing on that stand. You know to stand on that stand when you really - no-one had heard of Perth, no-one had heard of me - to stand on that stand in front of that fantastic crowd, and it just was a fantastic experience, very hard to explain to people, the feeling of passing the tape when you've won a gold medal. People often ask me to describe that, and really how do you describe that. And standing on that stand and hearing the ... well, they didn't play my national anthem in 1948, but in 1952 when I won my first gold medal, they played 'God Save the Queen' for me, then they played, 'Advance Australia Fair' for me. I was standing up there in the Finnish late summer sun for ages, because they didn't know which one was the right anthem to play for Australia. So I was there for ages, it was lovely.
The 1948 though, it was 'God Save the Queen' ...
I think that's right, yes.
... that was played. By 1952 there were two anthems. By 1956 what did they do with the anthems?
They must have played 'Advance Australia Fair' then. But in Marjorie's win which was before mine in 1952 - Marjorie Jackson- they played 'God save the Queen', and this is what caused trouble from back home. And so then the Finns didn't know quite what to do, what was the right thing to do and so they gave me the lot.
You came back from the London Olympics with medals - no gold - but medals under your belt, and really the first success for an Australian woman in an Olympics championship. It was the beginning of something.
In track ...
Oh I had a tremendous reception when I got home. Ah - parade - car parade - I didn't come back immediately because I stayed to have a look around, but finally when I did come home I had a lovely civic reception.
And how did the shy girl from the bush cope with that?
Well, I suppose I, you know, really enjoyed everyone enjoying it, and it's really partly the reaction you get from other people's enjoyment. This is what I think struck me mostly in 1956 to find that the whole of Australia was sort of enjoying what I was doing - was just a very big sort of buzz. But yes I got a tremendous reception coming home. I don't think anyone thought I was going to go on for much longer, but I did.
And why did you do that? You came back and people said to you, 'It's time to retire', and you decided you wouldn't. Why did you not retire then?
I was still involved with the sport. It's a matter of what you retire from - all active life or what? Or just Olympics? Now the Olympics were four years away, and that's a long time away, so I just went on with my sport, and enjoyed my sport. I went on with my life, because I was busy with teaching people, like my husband, and picking up on all that type of life, and when the Olympics came around, the last one had been such fun, and the next one was going to be in Helsinki, and of course that's very close to Norway and all those Scandinavian countries that I had heard about, and would love to have seen, and this sounded pretty exciting, and I was still national champion. I was national champion for all of those years, so, as it was a convenient time - my husband was away as usual in the winter, went north for his geological surveys - and so I went off. Unfortunately I had to - when I was working I had to resign every time. That's not so now. You can get time off and get paid leave, but I had to resign my job every time. But still, it was a marvellous way, I mean who would deny what a marvellous experience ...
Somewhere at the back of your mind also did you want to get that gold?
Oh yes, but I - there's no guarantee it was going to happen, but I knew I had improved, I'd matured, I was getting stronger. In fact I was just getting stronger and more capable, right until I was 35 years old, because you just keep on learning, you sort of have a learning curve. I don't know where age actually takes over, but you keep getting better organised, stronger, more skilful, and somewhere in there there's an age factor, but I don't know where it is. And, there wasn't really any reason, unless I chose not to, to not attempt to get selected a second and a third time.
Now, in the meantime, life had been going on, and you'd got married. What was your husband's attitude to the fact that you were wanting to go to the Olympics again?
He was very - always very supportive, but I still think he was a bit nervous of me going away like that. I think even in today's world, a partner is a bit nervous about someone going away and meeting a lot of other people, which I did of course. So he wasn't very happy with me going, but he - for me he was happy, I mean he was a - he was a very good man. I was, you know, grateful for - I think this is one of the things I was a bit nervous about marriage - you know what does it do, will it restrict you, what can you do? And he was very good. He was also a very good parent. When I went off to train in the late afternoons and he was home, he was a great parent, so you know, he did a good job.
Now what happened at the Helsinki Olympics?
My first gold medal, in the 80 metre hurdles. I came third in the 100 the day or two before. I think it might have been two days before, because I had the heats of the hurdles, and then I had the hurdles win. Marjorie had won her gold medal, and I came through. I had done well in the heats, and done well in the semis, and I knew that my times were good. I'd broken world records in my heat in the semis, but I had Mrs Blankers Cohen of course there, and by this time a lot of the East Europeans, the German girls and South African girls were coming through. So I knew there might be plenty of people capable of beating me. But when I started to do such good times I thought, I think I can do this one.
Were you very conscious of Fanny Blankers-Cohen at that ...?
Oh yes, yes.
And so what happened in the hurdles?
She fell in the hurdles. I think it's fair to say I was leading when she fell. But that's always the nightmare of any hurdler. You get a bit over-stressed and you touch a hurdle, and you fall, and for the rest of your life there's that picture of you lying flat on the track. But she did fall. But I don't think she would have beaten me. I think I was running too well then. She wasn't - she was older of course and she hadn't been very well, but I'd torn a muscle as well, so, well you know, we weren't all sort of making excuses.
Were you conscious of her falling?
No, I didn't even know she'd fallen. She wasn't in my view. I suppose I wasn't even looking, because I didn't look. That's one of the difficulties, if you get distracted by anything that's happening around you, it can throw you completely off your own concentration.
Had you expected to get placed better in the 100 metres sprint, or was third what you were expecting?
No, I was glad to have got to third. I mean I had Marjorie Jackson, who had beaten me in our national championships, not by much, but had beaten me, so I knew she was a very strong contender, and I didn't know what else there might be when we got there. But she was definitely our top sprinter at the time. I was really glad to come through as third.
Now you were the first of those women that went away and did so well in track. How did you feel about the younger ones coming on - there was Marjorie Jackson, and then there was Betty Cuthbert. What was your feeling and your relationship with those other women?
My feeling for them, with them - I suppose I know them better now, in subsequent years than I knew them then, because remember, this place, Perth, in Western Australia, is a long way from the eastern seaboard, even in those days. It's a long way now, but you can travel very much more quickly today. But in those days, you didn't have a lot of times when you could meet, except on the top competition. So I got to know Marjorie very well on the '52 Games of course, and she stopped then, she got married and her career finished. And I got to know Betty better in Melbourne because we were in the village together for a month, and she was the young one coming up, and she was the national champion, so - and we've remained friends. But we got a lot closer of course than I would with European or overseas competitors.
What were some of the other highlights of international competition for you?
I suppose the individual tours that I did, I found interesting. I did several to New Zealand, I was invited to go to America but I was pregnant - I seemed to be pregnant every time I got invited to go to America. I was invited to go to Russia, but I had to get back to my job. But I did go to Poland in 1955, which was a really interesting experience, with the Polish people, because they were still in the aftermath of war, disastrous war from both sides of their country. And I got to know the Polish people very well. And there, of course, that's where I did my world record sprint record. And apart from winning the hurdles, which is what they asked me to do, I also won the 100 metres in world record time, which was not bad.
11.3 metres - 11.3 seconds for the 100 metres.
(Overlapping) That lasted for something like 9 years.
Mm, So I'm very proud of that - in fact, I'm more proud - I'm proud of anything I've done, and I have to face up to any of my disappointments, and people don't remember my disappointments and my failures and there were plenty of them. People forget that, but I think the world records that I have, and I've had them in two relays, the 80 metre hurdles and the 100 metre sprint, to me mean a little bit more of an achievement than a gold medal, because when you win a gold medal, you don't know who wasn't there. When you do a world record you know that there's nobody that's beaten that time. It was just a little bit more sort of personal.
But did you get the same acclamation for it back home, when you came back with a world record from Poland?
No, I think there were a few people who thought I couldn't run that fast, but I think they were judging me on the sorts of timekeeping that we were doing in Perth which was hand timekeeping and visual judging and running on grass tracks. I was running on a cinders track - I had 24 timekeepers, 24 judges and electronic timing, and I've still got the film with all the electronic timing on it, so that to have that disputed to me was a little bit - little bit bad.
Oh, by one or two of the athletics people, [who] said, 'Oh no, she couldn't have done that'.
So did that make you feel ... what did that make you feel - I'll show them?
Yes, oh yes. You'd like to show them, yes.
Did that have something to do then with your decision to go to the '56, which by that stage people were saying that you were getting old?
That was an enormous risk, to go to '56 because by that time I'd had my child, and I was 31 and all that I had built up in my '52 wins and my world records, I was putting at risk, and I knew it. So I knew if I was going to go, I had to do it well. I just had to do it well. So I felt that I was running well, I worked very hard, I worked harder, I learned to work very hard in fits and starts. I didn't train flat out all those years. I didn't train every week, or every month, or every year. I trained - but when I did train, I trained very organised, and sometimes three times a day. And not too many of even today's athletes, I think, train as hard as that. But I trained, I had trained three times a day, rest, different things for each of those sessions, and rest in between, and just totally dedicated what time I had to those - to that fine tuning of my training.
Yes, it pays off - paid off. It paid off because I knew I was getting stronger and more skilful. And this is one of the things that people didn't recognise in those days. I mean we do now, we've seen some - our top people in their early forties, very powerful sports people and sprinters and performers. That's aside from the long, the endurance runners, who tend to be a little bit older. But I was running better than I'd run before, when I was 35 years old. And almost without trying I think I could have got into the Rome Olympics, but I didn't really want to. I mean by that time I had two children, [the] world was fine, I, but I really was beginning to worry about my other children, when you've got a husband that goes bush for half the year at a time.(laughter)
It's a little bit hard isn't it?
Yes. That's right.
So I was - the years were passing by and I was really keen to have what I thought was the statutory five children. Everyone had five children, and so I thought I should have five.
Do you think that having children made you a better or worse athlete?
Oh, I'm sure motherhood is good for women. As long as they have the back-up support. I think for a lot of things that take place, I think your body becomes more capable, more tuned up, you become more mentally organised, you become more focused. I think motherhood is great for women, but I wouldn't recommend it as a necessary prerequisite for the sporting woman. But I don't think it does anyone any harm. As long as when they have that child or those children, they've got that back-up support. I mean I couldn't have managed without my mother's support in baby-sitting, and the support of my husband when he was home, and the interest and support of a lot of people. But when that's there, there's nothing physically to say that you shouldn't have children, in fact I think you benefit from it.
What was it like to be competing in Olympics in your own home country?
Quite unbelievable. Previously when I had competed in Australia, even - it was that top championship, you would not get many people in the stand. Just those who were sort of related to the sport. I didn't expect that Australia would actually attend the Olympics like the Europeans do, I mean the Europeans attend any big sports meet like that. I was used to competing in front of up to a hundred thousand people in parts of Czechoslovakia. But I didn't expect Australians would be very excited. And even until the day before the opening, the weather was bad, and I went into the city for some reason or other, and there was no excitement around, I couldn't feel anything, you know. With the opening ceremony it was just so packed out and so - such a success, and people just immediately seemed to take it to their hearts, and it was just amazing. A hundred thousand people in Australia, - couldn't believe it. And to have them participate so beautifully - but they didn't only participate - this is what I find with sport, and particularly track and field - that the audiences that come tend to be not that parochial. They tend to support the local people in particular, but they tend to also be very responsive to a good sportsperson, and that's what happened in the '56 Games. The crowd just enjoyed it so much. And at the end, when we had the closing ceremony which of course was an innovation, they'd never had a closing ceremony like that before, that just capped the whole thing right off. There wasn't a dry eye in that stadium at the closing ceremony.
Oh they just didn't want it to finish. It was just that - 'Will ye no come back again?' And all the Scottish ballads. It just was an amazing mass emotion.
What was different about that closing ceremony?
The two things that they changed, and there maybe have been others. But two things that they changed - one is they brought all the athletes in together, not in one country, not country by country, but all together, mixed up.
Did that have anything to do with the political situation at the time?
I don't think so. It was apparently a suggestion made to the organising committee, according to the historical records on that. I'm not sure it wasn't a young boy who made some of those suggestions. And then the whole procedure was sort of less formal, and they had these, you know, 'Will ye no come back again?' ballads. It was just so emotional.
For you, what were the results of those Olympics in 1956 In Melbourne?
Two, two gold medals - and a disappointment in the 100 metres.
What happened in the 100 metres?
I don't really know. I was world record holder. I was running very, very well. In the semi-final I failed, did not reach a place in the final - it made me more determined to win the hurdles. But years later I read that the lane five, which was the lane that I'd competed in - that everyone who competed in that lane did poorly. Now I don't know, it's a long while ago, and the track was laid quickly and taken away quickly, but apparently it was very soft. The track was newly laid and it was soft friable - cinders, but if that was the case, then that might have explained to me why I failed in that semi-final of the 100 metres. But I was running so well, I had male competitors training with me, and they couldn't - one was what we call an even-time man - he couldn't even hold me, I was running so well. So, that's just one of those things.
You would have liked to have had the ...
Well I was very disappointed, because it would have justified my world record that people doubted, too.
So was it very difficult psychologically then to go on competing in the other events?
Well I had to face up the next day and do the hurdles. That's what sorts you out.
Do you think that's what sorts out champions from others?
Ah, there are a lot of intrinsics I think in what we call champions. I have told my athletes over the years that the champion is not the one who wins everything and is super talented. A champion is the organised one, and one who after a defeat, comes back to remedy that defeat.
What do you think makes a champion?
I don't think there are champions - maybe there are champions born, but I think champions tend to be those people who can accept defeat, and correct their route and come back and have another go. That's my philosophy in the many years of coaching champions and non-champions. I think that's the trick, because people forget that most of us who are so-called champions have had down times, failures, losses, and the only difference, I think, is that we come back again and have another go. It doesn't mean you're going to be successful, but I don't think that anyone who takes the first defeat and disappears is ever going to be a champion. I think that's one of the elements, apart from a few other things.
What are some of the other things that you think contributed to your being a champion for so many years?
Well I was blessed with being strong and healthy, and with a very physical upbringing, and, I think, an enormous curiosity about the world, and about myself, and about everything really. And I always felt a need to make my time matter in whatever I did. Whether it was just, you know, doing things in the world, because I'm an environmentalist I always wanted my time to matter, I didn't want to use the space on this world that I have for four score years and ten or whatever, not to matter some way. I don't know why, that's one of the things I think that motivated me.
Were there any particular psychological characteristics that you think that you have, that were particularly important in your sporting career?
I don't know that I could say that. It's only in retrospect when people start asking me questions about why I did this, and why I did that, that I start wondering why I did these things. I'm not aware of any particular psychology except perhaps in a way childhood, perhaps a world war that really focused the world, and the things that can happen in the world, and my curiosity about the world and myself, and I think that's probably the basis of it. And the basis of any child I think that does those sorts of things.
Now events that were happening in the world in 1956 affected the atmosphere of the Games in Melbourne that year. Do you recall that?
Yes, that's correct. Anyone that thought there's been any Olympics that I know about where there hasn't been some trauma or problems, would be wrong. Of course even in Melbourne we had carpenters' strikes, we had bad weather to start with, and then we had the Hungarian - Russian invasion of the Hungarian ... of Hungary, and all the trauma of that. So that, I think, focused people's attention on the international scene, and made people very well aware of the foreign people that were coming to visit us. And the difficulties that some of those people had at home.
Both the Hungarian and Russian teams came to those Games. Did you feel the tension between them living together?
Oh yes. There was enormous tension between them, but it sort of erupted in their water-polo competitions, but I mean how could you have it else. The Hungarians were already in their planes on the way when the invasion took place. And quite a few of them defected after the Games. But I felt the tension in the village, when in fact I actually took some letters from the expatriate Hungarians to Hungarians inside, and they - they were - Hungarians who were in the village were sure that there were, you know, their own version of their police watching them and checking everything they did. So you couldn't not know.
The letters you took were giving them information about how to defect?
Well I suppose so. I didn't read the letters. But they were to people who wanted to defect, and I think one or two of them subsequently did defect.
Did you feel that it was at all dangerous for you to be carrying those letters?
No, no, not a danger to me personally. Not that I would have worried anyhow. I was so offended by the Russian invasion of Hungary, and with the enormous fight the Hungarians put up to no avail.
Did it affect the way the Russians were treated?
Not to the extent that I knew on track and field. I know when the Russian won the marathon, he won just before I actually raced, and his reception was fantastic. This is what I found surprising, that people accepted that sportsman, irrespective of whether he happened to be a Russian, and you know, that to me was absolutely amazing. I happened to be on the track when he had his lap of honour, the sort of thing you didn't normally do, but the crowd just insisted on it, it was such a marvellous performance. So, you know, that's the international - and the benefit, the beneficial side of sport in my opinion. I think most of the value of the Olympic Games takes place behind, in the villages, where you get all these top sports people inadvertently getting to know each other, and getting to understand we all have the same problems and feelings and emotions and so on.
In the three Olympics that you attended, one of the themes was the relay. It seemed to be beset by problems, the relay events, where we had the best women sprinters in the world, and there was always some difficulty around the relay.
Yes, that's probably true. Not in 1948 except that we lost by four inches, which was a bit of a difficulty. But in 1952 of course we dropped the baton and that lost us a certain gold medal.
How did that happen that the baton got dropped?
Marjorie Jackson hadn't moved away from the incoming Winsome Cripps and as she received the baton, as she brought it back, she - Winsome was too close - and she hit Winsome, and dropped the baton, picked it up, but we then came fifth. We'd broken the world record in the heats, so you know, and we were five metres, so that was just tragic. And it lost us four gold medals for them - particularly for Verna and Winsome, the other two competitors, because they didn't go home with a gold medal. And they deserved it. In 1956 the problem was that we had - that our four - well we had five sprinters, but there was controversy about the selection of the fourth. I had nothing to do with that, that seemed to be originating from New South Wales where most of the control was. We had problems with the direction that we had to take to do a certain type of baton change. We managed to overcome that by subterfuge as I think I mentioned before. And managed to achieve it and have the one that we wanted which brought us home by not a very big margin. If we hadn't trained secretly with that better baton change we might not have won at all. We only won by inches. So, we had a few things to learn.
Now, you have also had a big part in your sporting career in relation to coaching and managing, and dealing with the whole management and organisation of sport. What are some of the things that you've learned throughout your life about the organisation of sport? Has that changed a lot? And what are the things that you feel we should bear in mind when we're organising any kind of sporting activity?
Well things have changed a lot and dramatically. The time - the pattern of sport has changed, the participation by women has changed, the number of opportunities overseas and interstate have changed. The abandonment of the amateur status has also changed and made a big impression. I am a little bit regretful that the emphasis on elite people, which I fully support - but the over-emphasis on the elite has meant a decline in the attention of the normal participation, whether it's at a low-key primary level, or whether it's in teenager or later, and that's been enforced by whoever the powers that be are. I think it's a thrust towards more gold and that sort of thing. Unfortunately it's meant that some of the club versus club type of nurturing in the sport, in my particular sport, has become less effective in my opinion.
In the women's track events there was this incredible flowering led by you, and followed by others, and you were all running there brilliantly for that period, and everybody in Australia knew about you. After that there's never been a period quite like it.
I think you have to take into consideration the fact - the timing of those years. The post-World War Two period. Many countries were really not up to training their athletes, or selecting their athletes, or supporting the Olympics, or anything like that. They were too preoccupied with getting back on their feet. I mean I was lucky in 1948 because there were very few European countries who actually sent teams that would have had the diet, the training, the sorts of things that we'd had. In 1952 this was slowly changing, but I think perhaps we, the people you've mentioned, had the benefit of an Australia that had been largely untouched by the constraints of a world war, although, you know there isn't any doubt that we suffered. We lost an awful lot of our fighting men and women. But as far as life was concerned there weren't any - there weren't anything like the constraints that the European countries had. And the other side of the question of course is the resurgence, or the introduction of the Negro women from USA into the sport and that took place through two important items of legislation that allowed them both to be accepted because of their race - nationality - not nationality, their race, but also into the college system which is, which was the nursery of athletics and track and field in America. And frankly I think that would have meant that we couldn't have done what we did in our time, had we been in another period.
If you'd been up against Flo-Jo?
I wouldn't have stood a chance. Not a chance.
But then the white American population was competing and they'd been well nourished through the war.
They had been but I don't think that they - there didn't seem to be the same attitude to track and field in white America, white American women. I can't speak with a great deal of authority, but we got some from there, but not many, and I don't know that they were - that it was as exciting for them as it was for we Australians to compete well. But certainly when you look at the preponderance of American Negroes and Negresses in our international world cups and international events now, I think what I've said is pretty well spot on. That now our Dean Cappabianco one of the lads at the club that I assist with, his claim to fame at a recent big international was [that] he was the fastest white person there. There were five other dark people, five other Negroes and Africans who beat him. He was the fastest white person. Now that's a far call from us being the only white people in our events. Not quite only, but nearly the only white people there. So I think that's got something to do with it.
Your history in coaching. You've always done some coaching haven't you? How 's the situation of coaches developed in the period you've been doing it?
I was coaching before I finished competing. Long before I was finished competing, in fact one of the reasons I continued competing was because with my coaching, I stayed in with the girls and boys and competed and ran relays with them. And I was coaching since - I've been coaching since 1950 practically, because nobody else knew much about coaching in those days. And I'd come back from the Olympics, and I knew probably more than most.
Would that happen now? Would a current champion be coaching?
Ah, I suspect they could, but of course now it's become a profession, the coaching profession, just like all of these sports sciences, there's coaching, sports psychologist, sports physiotherapy, sports physiologists, managers, all these professional positions, and now almost essential for a top athlete. We didn't have those sorts of things, but you know.
Did you earn much money from the coaching?
No. No. I never earned anything. It cost me a fortune.
You mean you didn't get paid for any of this activity.
(overlapping) Oh no, no, none.
All at my expense. Yes. But, I always felt I was sort of giving it back. Not that I felt that I needed to in particular, but I always was refreshed working with young people. The reason I do it now, is because when I go out there - I went out there last night, I didn't - felt a bit tired going out, and had a lot of things to think about, and I went out there and I came back laughing because I'd mixed with them, I'd helped them, and just in small ways, and I think it does me a lot of good. So I think the coaching helped me, but it was always, always done at my own expense. And in my own time.
How would describe the education you got at Northam High School?
I think it was a very good education, I had very good teachers. And it was a very difficult time of course. It was wartime to a large extent, and although I still think that homework was over-emphasised, I mean we were accepting that, and it was a very good education. I really enjoyed the teachers I had. They had a great influence on me, very good teachers. And I say, for the times, it was a very good education.
Were you interested mainly in the maths and physics side then?
No. I was particularly interested in English and literature. And I didn't quite know, when we had to decide which sciences to go for, whether to go for physics or biology. I think those were the only two options at the time, or chemistry. And I chose physics, really I suppose because botany and biology - I thought I'll never remember all those long names. They were just the sorts of things that influence children. But I was good at mathematics and good at physics, so I wasn't, I'm not unhappy to have chosen those as my special subjects. Oh, and literature, I was just fascinated with it. I wanted to get an 'A' in literature, and I had a real tragedy when I finished my exam feeling absolutely delighted with my work. I didn't turn the page and missed one whole question. Tragedy. Just that much probably was enough to turn me into science.
So when you finished at Northam High what did you do then? What was the next step?
I came down to UWA and decided I was going to do an engineering course actually, because I thought I was good at mathematics, and we had engineers in the family, and for some reason I thought engineering would be a real challenge, and I'd really enjoy doing that. And I went into the Dean of Engineering to apply, down from the bush, and you know - not with - with no real reason not to, and was surprised when he looked a bit uncomfortable with my approach, and so I finally said to him, 'Why, what's the problem?' And he said, 'Well, we haven't got a woman's toilet'. So that at seventeen years old, it was a bit embarrassing for me. I suppose today I would have made another sort of retort, and I'm sure they've got women's toilets now, but - and I went off and enrolled in physics and science and did nuclear physics. Which I also wasn't told women couldn't do. So ... (laughter)
Nuclear physics was very much the fashionable - or people looked up to those who were doing nuclear physics at that time, didn't they?
I don't know about that. I didn't know at that time. What I was interested in was, it was one of the cutting edges of sciences, and my research was, well it was the start of nuclear energy, you know, the power of the bombs and those sorts of researches, those - it wasn't so much the bomb but that sort of research was continuing. And I did my research on cosmic rays which are the particles that enter the earth from space and that, I think, has given me an enduring interest in astronomy. I'm just fascinated with astronomy. It's mind-boggling and it's something you can't really grasp, because it's sort of not in a human dimension, but I just thought that was fantastic.
So you did an honours degree, and then what about postgraduate work? Did you think of going on to doing that?
No. I didn't really want to do postgraduate work at that time. I mean we were just recovering from a dramatic and traumatic world war, and I wanted to get into the world and find out what it was about, and find my way. I didn't think of continuing on. I couldn't have - I don't think I could have borne spending more years chasing a very narrow specialty. And so I left university and went into - well I did actually interview with the head of the Lucas Heights research but by that time my husband was courting me, and Sydney was then a long way from Perth, and I just sort of deferred and deferred and finally I didn't go. I then fell into teaching when I was looking for jobs, and teaching became my speciality. I'm not a trained teacher, but because my mathematics, in particular, was always in demand, mathematics teachers are always in demand - I was always - it was always very easy for me to get positions in teaching.
Did teaching come naturally to you?
I think it did. I think I developed - although I wasn't trained to teach - I think I developed the skills of transferring my information and my principles to my students. My first introduction to teaching was when I was shown a room with something like fifty-five fifteen year old boys in it, who all hated school and hated mathematics and particularly didn't like women, and so there's a pile of books, now go and teach. Now that is really jumping into the deep end. So I realised I had to be something more than just that sort of thing. And I think I developed special skills of explaining the elements of mathematics all my life really. Particularly when I went to tertiary education and the Edith Cowan University.
To learn how to effectively teach calculus which is a fascinating tool - it's an absolutely fascinating tool - and statistics which is also a fascinating tool, to people who hadn't done more than three years high school was a challenge. But I was very proud of the way I was able to do it. But I had to go right back to basics. I had to forget all the teaching I had had at university from the professors, which was dull, boring and - and concentrated on the end result, on the right answer, because nothing was not related to life and the world. So I - what I developed in my mathematics, was relating the mathematics to life and the world and the usefulness of it. And it was quite an inspiration for me really, because I'd never realised mathematics was so exciting until I started to teach it.
You yourself hadn't ever been taught in an exciting way?
Not at the universities, no.
What about at school? What got you interested in maths when you were at school?
Well I think even at school they didn't teach it in a related way, relating it to the world. It was a matter of getting the right answer. My first mathematics was when I was at primary school and my teacher was an untrained, what we used to call a 'monitor'. And she didn't have as much mathematics as I was expected to learn. So I just used to get the papers from the Education Department and try and fumble through them myself. And I developed a technique of looking at the answer, looking at the problem, and working out how they got to the answer. That's pretty hard isn't it?
So you'd look up in the answer in order to work out how ...
(overlapping) I'd look up the answer and work out how they must have got it. But it was just oriented to getting the right answer which was nothing to do with the world.
In those days particularly it was considered very unusual for a woman to be good at maths. Did you find that? Did you find people were surprised that you were?
Yes. People are still surprised about women that do mathematics. And I don't know what the statistics are, if I can use that term, on women maths teachers now, but I suspect they're very, very low compared with women in the humanities and social sciences. It still persists, this attitude that women can't do maths, are uncomfortable with maths, or they don't have the right sort of brain for mathematics. That's an absolute myth really.
Yes I did enjoy teaching. I enjoyed being associated with students and I think the only thing that I didn't enjoy was having to repeat the same thing many, many times. That's why I found it was easier, when I was - when the children were young - I didn't teach full-time. I taught on what we called a 'relieving' basis. I was not allowed to be permanent because I was married. And my husband was expected to support me for the rest of my life. So I was called Mistress on Supply which is a very sexist type of term, isn't it? So I was able to just pick it up when I wanted to, drop it when I wanted to and just teach for small sessions. But when I got into regular teaching, and particularly after my husband died and I then was the only breadwinner - and of course I was - became permanent and all of those sorts of processes. I was rather pleased sometimes when there was a change in the curriculum, and you could change things around a little bit, or you had a different group of people. I found the repetition of year after year of doing similar things sometimes a bit boring.
Is this a characteristic of your life? [INTERRUPTION]
Is this a characteristic of your life generally that you're always looking for something new, something fresh? Do you get bored with things fairly easily?
I don't know. [INTERRUPTION]
Your first teaching job was with fifteen year old boys. When did you start teaching adults?
When I went to Edith Cowan University really. That was because I was being worked so hard as a maths teacher in the high schools and I had teenage children in high school. I found I was going home too tired to really spend my time with the children. And so I resigned from the Education Department, and said, 'I really can't do this any more, it's just too much, you're working me too hard'. And then, within a month, I got a call from what is now Edith Cowan University, asking me to relieve a certain lecturer who was going away to Britain for twelve months, and I put it off and put it off, and finally because it was getting later and later I said, 'Well I'll try it'. And that started me on my professional career with the tertiary education. He didn't come back and I was there for something like 25 years, I suppose it was.
If you had to sum up what you did in teaching maths which your teachers at university hadn't done for you, how would you characterise your style of teaching?
I had to almost rewrite the books. I had to get examples, particularly in behavioural statistics, and in calculus. Behaviour - I had to get examples, and make up examples that related to something that we understood. And I think that was what I had to do. Ah, my first group, as I said, the first group I had in tertiary education came from all over the place. Some had no mathematics, some had a unit at university, and I was supposed to be teaching them calculus. And I went to the principal and I said, 'I can't do this. Half of them are so fazed by what you are asking me to do, they can't handle it. And the other half are totally bored'. And when I found that my - my predecessor had been just showing videos all day, I realised I had a problem. But I certainly sorted that course out, so that it became more relevant and more teachable. And so I think I managed to handle the crises that were obviously evident in that type of teacher education, and develop my own techniques, and adjust.
During the period that you were teaching, what kinds of changes have you seen in the education system?
I'm sort of in the - spent half my life in the education - state - secondary education, and there were not really major changes there, except that women were able to move out from marriage and become permanent. But in the tertiary system, it's changed dramatically. The changes have taken place such as amalgamation of a range of tertiary institutions into one, which happened in all the states, and did happen in Western Australia. And that caused a multitude of different courses, whereas I was in a specialist teacher training, and in those days the only teacher training organisation - suddenly we had to think of all sorts of things to do. You know, think of something, we'll teach it. And all the other educational institutions took up teacher training. And of course teacher training courses have changed. They went very academic. We had to put tertiary mathematics into our teacher training, and suddenly it was dropped out. So that sort of ebb and flow of philosophies and policies, persisted right through that particular later period.
And what did you make of it all?
Well, I suppose it's very difficult to appreciate some of the changes. They were not done for education reasons. Ah, I also found a drop in the evaluation of the methods of teaching, and a rise in the appreciation of the qualifications of the person. And also a big drop in the permanency. It became very difficult to get permanent appointments. And I think that prevails today. It's contract work, and it even developed into the stage where if you were too long in one particular institution, you were not considered to be worth anyone else's interest. So there were a lot of psychological and philosophical changes in the staff of education.
And of course they were quite different to the seventeen and eighteen year olds that you normally - come straight out of school. And they were very good students. But they had different philosophies. Different reasons for doing it. They had thought it through. But they also brought with them some of the attitudes, particularly in mathematics, and computer education which was what I spent my last decade or so in - the technology and the mathematics was more of a barrier to those sorts of students, than it was to the young ones coming straight out of school. Schools had already had some sort of computer facility. And they were more ready to accept change. So there were changes like that. But the mature age students were really excellent. They really appreciated education, which is what young people don't always do.
How did you feel about the advent of computers and all the new things that you had to learn to teach? Did you find that difficult? To adjust to these new methods and techniques?
Ah not really. I and my boss were the team that introduced the first computer into anything other than technological training. We introduced a computer in the maths course. We decided that mathematics should be supplied with some sort of computer base in education. And we introduced the first one in the state. And it was a matter of, 'Hands up who can handle a computer?' And I said, 'Well I'm a physicist and a mathematician, I should be able to handle computing'. And I took it on. And that proved to be the direction I finally finished up in - was computer education, and computer mathematics education. It was very much based on computing and the use of the technology.
Has it been very important in your life to constantly find new challenges, things that will stop you from getting bored?
I don't recognise that as a sort of restlessness, that I must find something new. I find newness is pretty much thrust onto you. I don't believe I'm constantly looking for something new. I think more I'm quite prepared to accept it, and quite prepared to meet challenges. I don't think there's any doubt about that. But I don't think I seek out - and sometimes I think change for change's sake is something to be resisted. And it has to be analysed. But change for change's sake seems to me to happen quite often without any challenge, and I would prefer to challenge some of those attitudes.
Going back in time now a little, and changing direction a bit - when did you first get interested in boys, not as brothers, but as boys? Do you remember?
I suppose it was high school really. I - up till that time, boys were just part of the scene, and I was one of them. I did everything they did, and there were not girls anyhow in my family anyhow, so I was just one of the boys. And I think at high school when I started to get interested in boys, and had to go through my first period on my own, those sorts of things that happen when you're away from home. But I think then I got interested in boys, but we lived in a boarding school at Northam, in a boarding house. The Country Women's Association ran this house for country girls. And it - we were really locked in, we really were. But I think it - it wouldn't have made much difference. I was just too terribly shy with boys to have made - to have been able to flirt and - much as I would have liked to have. So I guess in high school.
You started dreaming in high school?
Oh yes, yes, I wondered about the future. I wondered about who was I going to marry? I always knew I wanted to marry somebody. This prince was going to come on his horse and carry me off, and we were going to be happy every after. And where will I be in 1970? Trying to cast my mind into the future. I knew that I wasn't going to be back on the farm. Now, where was I going to be? I was very curious about [it]. I suppose a bit apprehensive about it as well.
So when did you first start meeting boys?
I guess [at the] University of Western Australia when I came down to UWA. It's the first time I was sort of free. I was in a boarding house. Ah, I was boarding with a lady, actually the mother of Senator John Coulter during the war, and I was mixing with boys, but there were not many boys there, of course. There were no - there were not many. All the ex-servicemen were away. There were a few students. We were a very small university in those days. But I started to mix with boys then and get to know a few of them.
Yes, I was. Yes, I hadn't ... I'd come, still come from the country with no more communication skills than you need to talk to your own family. And I found it hard to talk and flirt. I admired girls who could.
Who did, but they must have - you must have been able to get on well with the boys because of your brothers. Did you find that your approach to them was more like it had been with your brothers, or did you just become tongue-tied with them?
Oh, I don't know, I don't think they were quite like brothers. But in later years when I was being courted by my husband, I noticed that to get on with boys, you had to stand on the rugby field, on the side, and watch the boys play. And I didn't want to do that. [INTERRUPTION]
What did you learn about how to get on with boys?
Well I discovered that to be popular with boys, it appeared you had to be able to go and stand on the side of the rugby field and flutter you eyes and clap your hands, and I really wanted to play hockey. I found that a bit difficult when I found that all of these girls, who were a bit interested apparently in all the men and particularly, and as well, my husband - not my husband, my boyfriend - he was very happy with having those other girls there. And what should I do? But I wanted to play hockey. And he didn't come and watch me play hockey. No. So I was learning.
Did you find that the fact that you were so good at athletics, and that you were doing mathematics and physics, was a little bit daunting for the boys at that time?
It could have been. I don't know. Not the right boys I don't think.
So, was your husband your first real boyfriend?
Yes, he was.
He was one of the Commonwealth Reconstruction Training Scheme ex-servicemen who came back after World War Two. They picked up their education with the support of the Federal Government. and went into tertiary education. And he was in one of the groups I was tutoring when I was doing my honours degree at UWA. He was one of the many.
So what did you think of these guys coming back from the war? That must have been a huge influx into the lives of the girls of Western Australia?
Oh it was, yes, and particularly into the UWA. But I had - was also teaching before that at Perth Technical College, where I was teaching servicemen, some of them twice my age, some of them with much more knowledge of electronics and radio, because they'd come out of planes, than I had. But I had a specific course to teach them to qualify. I was constantly being challenged by these elder - older gentlemen, not elderly gentlemen, and I just had to be very careful that I stuck to what I was doing, and didn't start trying to pretend that I knew more than they did in some of those special fields. So that was another challenge.
You didn't find that too daunting?
No, I didn't. It was a job that I felt I had to do. No. What would you do? You wouldn't resign, no. I think I earned their respect by not pretending anything. But I think they got to know that I knew more than they did in what they had to pass.
What attracted you to your husband?
Well, he was a big strong man and he really loved me. He courted me hard for many years, about five years. And, ah ...
No I wasn't sure what marriage would do. I wasn't sure about him. I wasn't sure about myself - it was all very new. So we finally married.
And what made you decide to do that?
I think it was a matter of making a decision. It was drifting on, and drifting on, and I felt I had to make a decision. And I never regretted making that decision.
So you got married after the triumph at the London Olympics.
Yes, that's right.
How did he cope with that, as your boyfriend?
Not well, not well. But at least he remained faithful to me through all of those months in which I could have been off with other fellows, meeting other people. But he remained terribly loyal, and never, never wavered in the fact that I was the one he wanted to marry.
Do you think he felt threatened by your success at all?
Probably, but to his credit - I mean he was called Mr Strickland quite often and he didn't like that, but he was pretty fair, and pretty accepting, but that was a long time ago. I mean men these days accept that their wives maintain their single names for certain purposes. All of my daughters-in-law, two of them, have retained their single names. But in those days it wouldn't have been thought honouring your husband if you didn't do that.
Why did you decide to keep it?
Keep my single name? I didn't keep my single name. I married de la Hunty. But I - the name still stuck with me, and now I get more Strickland perhaps than de la Hunty, and I've been de la Hunty longer than Strickland. But the sporting name stayed with me. But when I went away in 1952 he and I decided that as I'd been Strickland up till 1950, I should run under Strickland. And then I checked it out, and there were no problems there according to all the authorities. So I said I wanted - when I told the Athletics Union that I would, I wanted to run under my single name, they apparently didn't think it was quite nice. So they must have registered me under both names. So when I won my medal in Helsinki, I was watching the scoreboard, and it came up under both names, plus my initials, and they couldn't fit it on the board. So someone must have been thinking, and they just wiped the whole lot and just put Strickland back on the name. So, but, you know. I felt Strickland was the one I needed to stay with. It was the one I was known by. And he was quite happy with that.
So that means in 1952 you had two names and two national anthems at Helsinki.
That's right, yes. Maybe that's what confused them.
Maybe that was the year of big transition in the life of everybody.
In your marriage then, as time went on, you were really pioneering a way of living which was still fairly unusual at the time, because you had your athletics career, you had your teaching career, and your marriage, and your children. Did your husband's attitude to all of that change during the time that you were married to him?
I think he became more acceptable - acceptance - I think he accepted it as time went on, and partly because being a geologist, he was away sometimes for six months of the year. And I had the big responsibility of running the home and managing the children. He was away sometimes so long the children didn't know him when he got home. You know, when you've got a little tiny child that - when your husband comes to the door back from six months away, the child hides behind you out of fear of this stranger. It's a bit daunting, for both the father and for the child. So I think he knew that I was carrying this responsibility, and I didn't train all the time. That was one of the good things about my life.
I only taught when it suited me, and that was only in - a fortnight here, a week there. Really just for the extra money. And my mother was always a very willing babysitter in the time - the school time that I needed a babysitter. And it, it worked out quite well. I didn't have athletics all that time. Over the period of my athletic career, I wasn't every year pressured into - and doing - high pressure training work. There weren't the opportunities. I just would fall back into just being a mother, being a temporary teacher, doing a bit of sport, perhaps hockey or athletics. Then I'd pick it up again later. And that allowed me to, I suppose, maybe a new way, but in a very satisfactory way in my view, of not deferring children, not deferring the other things that mattered to me in life. And making it a more - less of a demanding sporting life.
You achieved a real balance in the way that you managed your life. But you still had quite a lot to cope with. How do you think you managed to keep all these things going, all these different strands to your life, in balance?
I guess it's a matter of time management, but also I then picked up these most interesting and essential roles in the environment. I began to be invited to be part of a range of environmental issues. I became involved with the formation of most of the conservation groups now in Western Australia. There was hardly one you could name that I didn't have a role in the formation of it, so that became a very compelling part of my life.
Yes, we'll come back and talk about that more later. [INTERRUPTION]
How did your husband feel about your earning money?
Well the first time it looked like I was going to be asked to do some teaching, I - I think I wrote to him then because he was a long way away, and said, oh, what do you think? And he wrote back and said, oh you know, my wife is not going to earn money, I am the supplier of the bread in this family But it didn't take too many months or years before - we weren't that well off, and we were trying to sort of get this house going, that he finally got round to that - [his] response would be, well, why aren't you doing it? (laughter). So he - his resistance changed, and, I don't think it did him any harm. Certainly it didn't do his pocket any harm for me to be bringing in a little bit of extra money, and that sort of went on - but it was a change of attitude which I think was sort of the cusp of the way people were brought up in those days, and I think this is one of the things that made me a little bit nervous about marriage generally, was losing any autonomy, and becoming unable to make any decisions.
How did he feel about you going off with the Olympic Games team with all these fine young male athletes and meeting exotic ones from other countries? Was he worried about that?
Yes, I think he was. I mean he would have had a right to be. But he, he was very generous about his attitude to that and as he wasn't able to be with me all the time - he had long absences - It rather weakened any opposition he might have had. But he had a right to. I mean I mixed with some very attractive people.
How did you deal with that? I mean did you find yourself inevitably being drawn to any of the ...
(overlapping) Yes, yes. For sure. (laughter)
Was there anyone in particular?
But I remained - I remained faithful to him. No, there was one person in particular I found very attractive, but I remained faithful, and so did he.
You were at one Games particularly fêted along with the young Czech athlete.
Zatopek. Yes. Yes a lovely ...
Mm, charming man. We didn't have much in the way of language, but you didn't need too much language with Zatopek. He was a lovely man. But time and tide - circumstances parted us very quickly. And it may never have been meant to be. But he was one of those - we found each other very interesting.
Did it feel a little flat then coming back to be Mrs de la Hunty, suburban housewife, occasional teacher after that kind of - those glamorous trips away?
Not really. I mean I still loved my husband. We had a long commitment to each other and a good relationship, and you always think about the what ifs, but it wouldn't have, it wouldn't have come to anything in those circumstances.
What do you think it was that he saw in you that your husband really loved about you?
I don't know. I didn't ask him. He just loved me, I suppose. Mother of his children, companion, soul mate, you know, I guess that's what it was. I can't ask him.
Just a sudden heart attack.
Yes, he was fit and well. He was playing squash. He was given the clearance by top sports medicine people. They said he was fit and well, but it's one of those hidden disabilities that are still taking people off very suddenly. It is sad.
And how did you cope with that?
Not easily. It's very traumatic. Very easy for - if you're going to die, I can't think of a better way of doing it. But it's not easy on those left behind, because you're not prepared for it. You don't have the warning. You don't have the thought, and it - and while, as I said, while easy for the person that dies, it's not easy for those that are left. And I know he wouldn't have been able to handle a long, drawn out, pain-ridden death. So there's pros and cons I suppose.
And you had your children. How old was your youngest when he died?
My youngest was just moving, he was in high school. My second youngest was actually, yeah, no wait a moment, it was a different time - 1980. Ah, David was just moving out into tertiary education. I had four of them in tertiary education.
Now, in deciding about having children, I mean here you were with an Olympic career to manage, your teaching career to manage, and here was also this need to build a family. Did you plan all of that? Did you think it all through?
No, the children weren't necessarily planned. they weren't planned at all. They - I had to be - I wanted them very much. I thought I had to have five because that was the sort of respectable number to have. I only managed to have four. But I did love having them. I always wanted to have children. But when you've got a husband that's away so much of the time, you just have to roll with the punches and hope it happens. And it fortunately happened at fairly reasonable spaces. I was glad they didn't have - I didn't have my children too close. I was really glad they came at 3 or 4 years apart. I felt that I was then, by circumstance, able to give each child 3 or 4 years of being my child, my baby, before another baby came through. And it worked very well as it happened.
You've said publicly before that having the children was the best thing that ever happened to you, rated above your sporting achievements.
What is it about motherhood that was so important to you, so special?
I guess it's the ultimate in creation really. The ultimate, producing another human being. Maybe there are other more important things, but I think emotionally and psychologically having a child is terribly, terribly important, and you only have to note the lengths to which women will go to have children to realise it's a deep-seated and important part of their lives. It's just so spiritual in a way. But an enormous responsibility. And a big undertaking too. Not easy.
Was it the actual giving birth, or the raising of the children, or what was it that you found so compelling?
Ah, I don't think actually the giving birth, although that's a very interesting function. I went through all the usual preparation. And I was going to have natural childbirth, and everything was going to be so easy, because I'd read all these books about how easy it was, and I got a big shock. And so many women do. Some of them produce them easily. I didn't produce mine too easily. I don't think it was necessarily giving birth, although when you see the child it's just - as woman have discovered for centuries - as soon as the child is born you forget all that difficulty. But I think it was the bringing of the children up - seeing these children grow. All, in fact, because of this particular interview, I've been going through all my - all family pictures of children and - brings it all back. See these little human beings growing, and changing and the things they do. Fascinating.
Better than looking at a gold medal?
Oh yes, gold medals come and go. Where am I now? I'm not looking at them. They're in a museum. My children aren't in museums. They're now producing grandchildren which makes it even more exciting.
Your youngest though prevented you going to the Rome Olympics?
Well, no he didn't prevent me from going. I was really keen to have this child. It was time - you know, I felt that if I didn't conceive before my husband went away, it was another year gone, down the drain. So I was really keen. But I wasn't changing anything I did. And I was still coaching, and doing this little bit of running, but by that time, I was plateauing very quickly in my fitness, and my skills, and I'd come up very fast with very little training. And I knew that I could have got into the team, I was just running and hurdling so well, if I wanted to - but I was in this awful dilemma of - how do I avoid going if I don't want to go, if I don't become pregnant? But fortunately I did become pregnant, and was pregnant before even the trials came up, so I went to the trials, but I wasn't very serious about them. I went along to keep the team marks up - points up. But that child was probably the fastest baby over 80 metre hurdles forever. So that's - I didn't really intend to go. In fact the thought of trying to go to 1960 was pretty offputting.
By that time too you had three other children?
Well, he was the third, he was the ...
I had another one after that.
Right. So how do your children go? Your eldest?
I've got a boy, a girl, and two other boys.
All fitted around Olympic years.
Oh by accident really. Olympic years are four years apart. If you can't have a baby in that time - I didn't go to - there were not a lot of other competitions except the Commonwealth Games. I only went to one Commonwealth Games. I missed on one that I would have liked to have gone to. But really, once you've been to one Commonwealth Games and you've been to the Olympics, I have to say the Commonwealth Games are nothing like as important, or as big as the Olympics, without meaning to denigrate the Commonwealth Games. It's nothing like the Olympics.
Talking now about your sporting career. Can I take you back to have you describe the kind of situation that most of us have never experienced, of actually running a race at an Olympic event, and winning it. How do you feel? What's going on in your mind? Could you take us on a sort of internal journey of what it's like to be a person getting down at the starting blocks, and actually getting ready to take off at an Olympic?
When I faced that final - the final of those races in which I won a gold medal, no-one can predict what's going to happen, so [there's] this enormous intensity of concentration and adrenalin and tunnel vision. I never foresaw what was going to happen, failure or success. And of course I did have failures. But I didn't pre-think those things through. But with my first gold medal which ... people have often asked me to compare gold medals, personal gold medals, that is, the wins of my 80 metre hurdles - very difficult to compare them. They're both different in ways. But the first one was something I didn't expect to happen. I used to apparently compete better from fear of failure than rather the will to win. And I found this hard to explain to people. Fear of failure. Fear of blowing it, I think, brought a lot out in me, and it wasn't, as has been described, of me and others, a killer-instinct. So when you have that enormous fear, and you finally know that you've actually gone through the tape and you've won, it's almost impossible to hold. It's almost impossible to. You sort of want to explode.
In today's world watching the winners, I would probably have danced around, and done my lap of honour like they all do. But in my world you didn't do that sort of thing, you were a fairly - it had to be a modest winner. It's much easier to be a modest winner than a generous loser. And so I was just so excited about it. Very hard to describe the sort of explosion, because you're not tired in my races. You're still full of energy. It's only ten seconds. And it's - what do you do with yourself? And for months afterwards, literally months, I'd wake up in the morning and think, did it really happen? Did I really do it?
It really was as thrilling as it looks?
Oh it was, absolutely. Terribly exciting.
Ah well, once you've done it once, you then know that if you run the next one badly, it's going to take some of the shine off that one. Well, that's what I think. So you then have to behave and operate at a level that will respect that previous win. This is why people were nervous that I was going on too long, because if I got beaten and did some stupid things, that would be remembered and not my wins. I mean that's what my advisers probably would have rationalised it that way.
It was very brave of you not to listen to them.
Well I listened all right. But I just then had to make sure that what I did, and I took risks. I did take risks, and it came off and so that's really my message, that I've often given to young people, and I must have spoken to thousands of young people about motivation. Don't let anyone tell you you can't do something. Because people do put these barriers in, and I suppose that's one of the things that I became adept at, probably because of my early upbringing. No-one told me the barriers were there. And nobody told me that barriers were there for women. And then you had to test those barriers yourself.
Some people have observed of Australian life that we're very good at motivation by discouragement. We say to people, 'Yah you can't do it', and that sort of gets them going. Did you experience a bit of that from the Australian media, with people sort of almost kind of daring you to show that you could do something, by assuming you wouldn't be able to do it?
I don't remember that, no. I don't remember. The press were usually very supportive and would give me great coverage. There were times when I was criticised, but not so much on my sport, but on, perhaps other things that I might have done. But mostly I think that I didn't suffer any of that from the media. Only from people who were nervous for me, that I would blow it.
What was one of the really disappointing times that you had when you were running? Do you remember an occasion when you were really disappointed?
Yes I was disappointed about being left out of the 1954 Commonwealth Games team, and I guess there were, oh, many other disappointments. That one was quite ironic to me, because it was an occasion where I heard an echo on the starting gun, and nobody else did. And I stood up thinking there was a recall and all of the rest of the people raced off, and I didn't get in the team. Since that experience it's happened several times in stadia where there are reflective surfaces, and one athlete hears the recall, the reflection, and thinks there's a recall, and stops, and there've been some tragedies like that. I found that tragic. And there's no way I could say, 'But, but, but, let's have another run about that. Let's do it'. There's no way they would let me do that again.
So one occasion kept you out of the team. That seems ...
Yes well I didn't ...
Well it was a final race. And it was a hurdles race which is what I would be selected in. And, that's, that's the rules. Them's the - way it crumbles.
So selection isn't done on who's likely to win?
No. Oh well they change selection criteria from time to time. But it, yeah, it can be just those - I mean how could I explain.
...I didn't even realise what had happened until I thought afterwards, well that's what it was, and then I found it was happening more and more to other people at times. And I understood.
How did you deal with that disappointment of not going off in 1954?
I came back for the Olympic Games, which was 1956, even harder. Because there were people who, in that team, some of the officials came back and one official said, 'Oh you would never have won there. Nobody could have beaten that girl'. Well I beat her, a little later.
So how did you get over that disappointment of not being sent away in 1954?
I think my resolve became harder, that if I got another opportunity, and of course the big opportunity was Melbourne, my home town, where there was to be a big town [sic], and I was going to be at an advantage, whereas all my previous competitions had been in the Northern Hemisphere. It was going to be in my hemisphere, more or less on my terms. I was harder; that I was going to make sure that I didn't suffer that final humiliation of being lost - losing my place because I heard the echo.
And did anybody suggest to you that you probably wouldn't have done very well if you'd gone away in 1954?
Yes, one of the officials came back to Western Australia and said, 'Oh, you would never have beaten, you wouldn't have won there. No, you would never have beaten her, that girl'.
And I did ultimately, yes.
So you had something to prove at the '56 Olympics?
Yes I did, but also the '56 Olympics was, as I said, very, very attractive, because it was the first time I'd been able to compete more or less on my own terms. But I was a bit shocked when they shifted the Olympics to the end of our winter season yet again, which is how I'd had to compete in all the northern experiences. To suit the northern hemisphere we had to compete the end of November, which was the end of our winter, but nevertheless I managed.
Looking back on your time in sport, there've been a lot of changes. Do you think all the changes have been for the good?
I think they've been changes consistent with the changes in what this world of ours is going through, but some of them I think are not for the best. In some ways, I think, we're losing some of the essential ingredients of sport, and I'm talking about participation sport, and I suspect as well as the long-term future of some of our sporting women in particular - I mean I haven't suffered through my sport, physically or in any other way, I think it has done me a world of good. I wonder whether the top sporting women, who are now full-time professionals in a hard grind that is unrelenting, will feel and will have lost, and how their health may perhaps be affected when they're in their forties and the fifties and the sixties that they should be looking forward to. But that will only come through time I suppose. It does worry me that I don't think we're looking at some of the essential ingredients. While there are a lot of positive changes, and positive opportunities, and it's much more of a big professional business now, I think the drivers of those change are professionals who have their own career to think of, rather than - and the results therefore are what they do - rather than the long-term effects on the people they're handling.
So instead of sport being a way in which you can keep healthy, you can sometimes lose your health by pursuing sport too strongly?
Yes, I think you might be able to lose your health, but you also, I think, will lose your identity earlier. Now I don't know whether my sporting identity would have persisted this long if I hadn't been very active in other fields, but if you concentrate twenty years of your life, or the minimum, a decade of your life, on total concentration on your sporting performances rather than what else you might do, not only your performances, but your career income, I suspect that there might be some - I know there are already some pretty bitter people, who have gone through this and suddenly come out the end with big losses in a variety of ways. And I suspect there might be more. But that's one of the sad results, I think, of change.
When you were performing were there any drug-related issues around the Olympics that you were in?
Nothing was even suggested. But in my era, you didn't even have to prove that you were female. That developed really after my performance. I think it was there in the '56 Games that there was some suspicion. And I think being a mother already, they accepted I might have been a female; but no drugs. The identification of whether you were female or not also has gone through its various phases. Ah, and that's also becoming another issue that's being discussed. But not drugs.
As someone involved in the management and coaching of sport even now, how do you do think that the whole issue of anabolic steroids and other drugs in sport ought to be handled?
Well I'm surprised at how well they've managed to do what they've done. I do know that I think the Australian authorities have done the best, probably the best job, but I'm not so close to the administration of sport today, to know how well they're - how much they're picking up. But it does appear to me that the Australian authorities have been quite effective. But when I took the team away in 1976 to the Montreal Olympics, that team was beaten before it even left, in my opinion, because the suspicion of drugs had meant that they were already believing they couldn't win, because they hadn't been using drugs, while they weren't in the drug scene. And it had an enormous effect on the spirits and the morale of the team. After that of course is when the AIS was established, and that's quite a ways down the track now of course, but I think the drug scene is being handled as well as possible. But you know, oh, is it true that the chemists are only one step ahead of them? I think the opening up of the barriers in Eastern Europe has helped an enormous amount, and perhaps even in China now, that's helping.
Switching again, and going back to when you were young. As a young girl in Western Australia, growing up and being at school and university during the war years, how did you experience the Second World War? What did it mean to you?
Absolute horror, really. We were getting the news through and I couldn't believe this was happening. Of course I was very anxious when I was at high school about what was going to happen, if we were invaded, and there was no reason to believe we weren't going to be invaded. I mean we did have a lot of reason to be concerned right down the coast of Western Australia and generally throughout Australia. I didn't know what I was going to do if the invasion took place, or we started to get bombed. Because at school we were very prepared - well I don't know, we did a lot of preparation. We dug trenches, we had the windows all taped. We had drills. Staff were going away to the war. The ex-servicemen were coming into the town. We were being taken down as young girls to dance with the ex-servicemen in the Country Women's Association. Ah, I got to know these people. We'd have the lists in the press of those who died, regularly. And I know at least one of those names was one of the gentlemen I was dancing with. So I was very well aware of what was happening and how serious it was. During - when I was down at university of course, it became even more traumatic. I was involved in quite a lot of wartime activities, such as servicing, being in the VADs, serving voluntarily in various ways, and the news started to come through on newsreels, although we didn't have ready access to the radio, of the horrors of what was happening. And the post-war period when they started to uncover what had happened in Germany, unbelievable. I still find it unbelievable.
How close was it in Western Australia? How close was the war?
Well they bombed right down to Broome. We had - we were losing ships out from Perth. There were, I think, submarines around the coast here. And at school, even at school we were trained in recognising aircraft that would fly over. So ...
So you felt there was a real possibility that you might be bombed?
... Oh there was absolutely a real possibility. Even on the farm you know we had all our windows blacked out. When we were able to use a vehicle we had to have the lights hooded. I don't know if they were doing the adequate thing, but that's what they did. My brother who was running, at that stage, three farms to keep them going, was doing voluntary work guarding various depots around in the surrounding areas. It was real. And of course we had enormous restrictions on just everything. We were on - we had rations - ah, there were things you could never buy - couldn't buy clothing. It was real.
How was I going to get home from school? How was I going to get home? Was I going to walk?
Well that was a hundred and sixty miles. Was I going to - what was I going to find when I got there? Where would we go in the bush? How on earth was I going to escape the Japanese intruders? I had no answer then, and I have no answer now. But it was very real.
And after the war you did a lot of travelling, and you went all over the world including to various meets behind the Iron Curtain which had occurred after the Second World War. What did that do to your understanding of the world and where we were, and where things were going?
It was most interesting to me, and most exciting. But I was able to see Poland, which was one of the worst damaged countries. Ah, I only went once behind the Iron Curtain, although I think someone reported I was behind the Iron Curtain at some other stage when I was up with my husband in Leonora, because they couldn't contact me. But it was shocking, but also very educational to see firsthand the damage that took place in Poland. And also to see Czechoslovakia almost untouched; that beautiful city of Prague. But, to be able to mix with the Polish people for a whole fortnight, get to know them, and get to know really firsthand what had happened, was an enormous experience for me, enormous education.
What did it tell you about what was going on in Poland at the time? Did you notice things that were perhaps not obvious to the rest of ...
Yes, even without any politics being spoken to me, I became very aware of the Polish people's resistance to their Russian controllers. It was just body language, or was what they didn't say. They were so friendly with me, the Polish people, and such beautiful people. [INTERRUPTION]
You went to some big sporting events all over the world after the war. The one that you went to in Poland was behind what they call the Iron Curtain in those days. What did you feel after these experience of travelling around, about the world and about where it was going and what was happening there post-war?
That was one of the very great advantages of being a sporting person. To be invited to those places that you would never have got to before. I had some difficulty getting to them, to the site. The Australian authorities were not very helpful. But it was marvellous to be able - or an enormous education - to be able to go into the Iron Curtain through Czechoslovakia and to Warsaw. And to stay in Warsaw for a whole fortnight and get to know the Polish people and get to sense, not only the deprivation and the damage that they had suffered from both sides. I mean they were the traditional meat in the sandwich of this terrible war, and the more I read about the war, the more I understand how tragic it was. But also I think, I didn't go to Auschwitz but I did see some of the holocaust areas in Warsaw. I think Auschwitz was in an area I wasn't allowed to go to.
When did your interest in the environment begin?
I suspect it was latent really because of my origins in the bush and also the enjoyment I had from the bush. In particular because it was a fairly arid area we couldn't grow much in the way of flowers, except geraniums and things like that, so that it was a wilderness of wild flowers, and I became increasingly concerned when I subsequently returned to that area, to discover how much had gone. And I think that probably started me worrying about what was happening around the country. I didn't challenge that my father and my brother needed to clear, but I started to worry about the road verges, and I think I wrote the first pamphlet for the National Trust on the importance of maintaining road verges. I don't know what's happened to it now, but that was because I became aware of that loss that was taking place. So I became the first secretary of the Wild Flower Society which we formed mainly, initially, to enjoy them and document them, but later to protect them, protect the areas.
So it wasn't just the areas of wild flowers. You feel that even species were lost?
Oh yes, I'm quite sure we've lost a lot of species, particularly in the wheat belts. I know that some of the flowers that I grew up with, that particularly my father's favourite which was apparently a Myrtecordia has never been seen again. I used to do tours with the tourist buses as the amateur botanist because I knew all the flowers, and then I began looking to see what the name of this flower was, and trying to search on the farm to find it, and it had gone. It had gone, and probably it was only one of many species that had gone.
So how did you move from wild life and wild flower lover into environmentalist?
Oh I suppose the next move was when I was asked by a group of people to help form the Tree Society which was based on the British concept of Men of the Trees. And I did that, I'm a foundation member of the Tree Society, and was active with them for many years and include - in fact, president for quite a few years of the Tree Society, which is still one of our most respected and our most enduring conservation groups.
What do you feel you accomplished with the Tree Society?
It broadened the concept more to the total environment, and to not just wild flowers but the whole ecology of wild flowers and trees and fauna of course. And then as my view broadened I was invited to consider the National Trust which was going to include both landscape and conservation as one arm, and preservation of our built heritage and sites as the other, and I served on those committees for quite a long time, particularly the landscape and conservation committee. But I was also chairman of a group of people - a sub-committee that restored old buildings, so I had a big relationship with some of our old buildings that we managed to retain and we restored them in the period when they were built. So it meant collecting materials, and I chaired that committee for quite a long time too. And later I became involved with the Australian Conservation Council, again because people asked me to chair that, and I chaired that local chapter for quite some time and was instrumental with my groups, with my group in expanding the membership of that particular national body because I realised that Australia had to become national about its environment. I expanded that.
Since then I have really been a lobbyist, and in particular I have been concentrating on the foreshore area which is very much under threat. It's really encouraging to me to see how many people now appreciate and understand the threat to the environment, both built and native, aware of pollution, aware of what we're losing. It's really great to think that that has moved from people like me being considered strange and emotive, to it now being accepted that it's everybody's business, and that it's a national problem and it has to be handled both locally and nationally. And I suppose if you get me rolling on these sorts of things, I was asked to chair Ian Kiernan's first Clean-up Australia in Perth, which I was very reluctant to do, but I finally did that. So that those sorts of spin-offs are taking place, with I suppose thirty or forty years being concerned with various aspects of the environment.
Why were you reluctant to be concerned with the Clean-up Australia?
Oh, mainly because I'd been very ill, I seemed to have suffered from regular pneumonic attacks. And also because I was under the impression that Perth was clean, and of course it wasn't as clean as we thought it should [be]. And so Ian Kiernan convinced me that it was not only a very important thing to do, to pick up other people's rubbish, I thought it was better to educate people not to throw it in the first place, but it's an awareness-raising exercise which I think is well worth the exercise, and so you know that sort of campaign is helpful.
So you've given an enormous amount of your time to the environmental movement. What convinced you in the first place that it was really urgent and necessary?
I was invited to attend a conference by Australian Frontier. It's a group that I had never heard of, and typically I didn't respond because I was busy and I didn't know what it was. And finally they rang me and said, would I please come? So I agreed. It always works on a personal level with me. It doesn't work on a - through mail. And I went and I heard the addresses by a series of scientists, including Stephen Boyden from the Australian National University. And his address was so good, so well based on science and statistics, that I suddenly - the penny fell and I suddenly realised that long term this world could be in serious trouble. It was the drive home from the university, which is only about ten minutes or fifteen minutes, [which] was I think one of the longest drives I've ever had in my life, because I thought, My God I hadn't even thought about this. And it really changed my whole attitude to what I might have to do in this world. And the reasons for doing it. And I think that really started to direct me into all sorts of environmental concerns and issues and awareness. One of the things about being a scientist, I was well versed in the important cycles of the world, and I have actually done quite a lot of lecturing in environmental history, so I was well aware of what was happening in other countries of the world as well. And so it really meant that this became and has since become the overriding, I suppose you could say obsession - I prefer to use the word conviction - that whatever I could [do] to change that direction based on the knowledge we already have, I would do, short of setting myself round the total twist.
And so that's why I've become very accessible and very active in environmental matters, as long as mind and body hold. But it's really because ... I think I would not be quite so convinced and quite so concerned, if I didn't have children. But having borne four children and starting to wonder with the changes we've seen in my time, what is going to face not only them, but perhaps more exquisitely my grandchildren which are now appearing, and their grandchildren. I mean how far are we looking ahead? It appears to me we're looking in short-term levels, ah, the politically, three years at a time, or four years at a time, and it's just impossible to, to affect any change in that short space of time.
You came from a farm, from the land. Traditionally there's been antipathy between environmentalists and farmers. How do you deal with that?
I think the farmers themselves have realised this. I know that on our farm my nephew and his wife would be the most environmentally concerned people I know. They will be doing their best, and I think there's a lot of attitude short of economic deprivation and, and this recession and all those things that take people's minds off the long term. I think there's a lot of understanding about that. I know there have - a lot of measures have been put in place to try and prevent the further degradation of our wheatlands. [INTERRUPTION]
What do you think has brought about the change in attitude so that people like your nephew have developed an environmental approach to farming? What do you think has brought that success, because it's been in a relatively short space of time, hasn't it?
I guess it's a relatively short space of time. I think the visual evidence of degradation, for instance seeing salt rising, seeing the incursions of dust storms, those sorts of things I think farmers can well appreciate. I suppose there are other effects that will affect them, but also I think the fact that we're on the information highway now means that these sorts of - those local issues, but also the global issues are coming through now, on the multimedia network, and people's information and education is being enhanced by that. And also I'm really so delighted that so many scientists are now standing up for their convictions and becoming outspoken. Whereas for a long time I gave up any hope that scientists would come out and be vocal. I mean it was always ... most of the scientists, in this state, I suspect in Australia, were in government employ, and not free to speak about their well-founded concerns. Now, I find more and more they are either prepared to - sometimes they lose their jobs - but more of them are independent, and I think through the universities some of those scientists are now speaking out much more strongly and freely, and I think the community, certainly the westernised community, is willing to listen. But of course you've got a long way to go before the third world countries can shake off their shackles of economy and deprivation and overpopulation, so that they can look at the long term.
Your activities in the environmental movement have actually been quite closely associated with educational activities too. Do you think that environmental education is very important?
Yes I think it's important, but I'm not too sure. I haven't had a lot to do with environmental education, just in the series of lectures I gave, it was a once off, but mine has mainly been nuts and bolts, computers, mathematics and that sort of thing. But I think that gradually our children and our students - the courses they are offered, have a larger environmental aspect and it also has to be based on sound scientific facts, and I suppose moral judgements. But many universities now have whole environmental science degrees, so that whole emergence of a new type of professional that deals with the ecology which was a new word twenty or thirty years ago. No-one understood what even it meant. Now I think most people do understand it. And that's a whole new professional field. Hopefully that will have some effect. I'm just hoping it will have an effect in time.
Were you brought up with any particular political affiliations or attitudes in the household?
Ah, in my time I don't think we even discussed politics. Certainly as I grew older and into adulthood, it was one of those secrets nobody ever bothered to ask anybody else, you know, 'Who do you vote for?' That was very, very secret. I don't know whether husbands and wives discussed it, but certainly no-one dared challenge anyone's secret voting power. Now that's a far cry from today. But I became aware that ... I was challenged in London actually, because I had during the war assisted a youth group, a working class youth group with physical education, called the Eureka Youth League - when I was in London someone challenged me and said, 'Who do you vote for?' And I said, 'None of your business'. Now that was the first time not responding had been seen as guilt, and in my absence, and in my ignorance of this response, it became a big write-up back in Australia. You know, she must be a communist, because she worked for this group which was not communist at the time, but apparently had communist leanings in the post-war period. She must have been a communist. So I came back and I had my parents in great distress, because they didn't know if I was a closet communist. It was just unbelievable.
And then I went to Poland. That was a little bit later, but you know, it was just amazing that this paranoia of communists, communism, was starting to draw me in for some reason, so that was just one episode. But I did in later years realise the power of politics, and also the limited evidence that politicians made decisions on, and I got drawn in to conservation. I was already a conservationist by that time, and I resolved that if I could get elected to the State Parliament, at least I could table all the information, because I discovered that some of the best intentioned politicians didn't know, didn't understand. It came to light because Dryandra Forest, which was not a reserve, was under threat for, I think it was mining, and I rang at that particular time forty politicians. It's a long time ago and I wonder why I had the courage. I rang them and asked them if they understood the wildlife, this world-wide recognised wildlife area, was under threat and they knew nothing about it. So I also took Vincent Serventy's book on the area to one of the key players, and they changed their mind. And I thought, I've got to do this. I have to make sure they get the information. And I stood as an independent.
Why didn't you stand for one of the parties? Did none of them want you?
I was requested to stand by all of the three major parties at that stage. All the three only parties.
I think that's how you recruit politicians, embryo politicians. You get someone who's well known, and I think that still applies, but I didn't fancy a life of politics, it seemed to be pretty dull and boring, but I was committed in a way, and I said, 'Well, while I would perhaps join you and follow this role, I would need to be independent on environmental issues, I'd need to have a conscience vote on matters I understand, which is education, sport and the environment'. And they all refused and I said, 'Well, that's the end of that story'. But it wasn't until the Democrats - my husband and I went to the Democrats meeting in the Perth Town Hall in 1977, and they had a conscience vote, and they were new, and I thought they might be able to become more attuned to the times, and we joined that night, and I spent ten long hard years with the Democrats.
Because it was a very small party it - well lots of reasons. One of the reasons it was hard was because grass-roots democracy is a very slow and tedious and sometimes not necessarily wise route to go, and we - I battled through that, and battled through the fact that we had no money, and so it all came out of the pockets of ourselves: you were short of members, you were short of suitable candidates, and as soon as we appeared to be becoming perhaps an influence and a force by getting people appointed, then the competition for places came out, and that's why they were hard.
Why didn't you run as a candidate for them?
Many times in unwinnable places. But it would take a long time to build up and win. I always hoped I'd get more votes. I did get sometimes quite a lot of votes, but I think I got more votes as an independent, and one of the issues that started to take place was, we were getting enough votes to influence a decision, and I was against direction of preferences, and of course that became a hot issue.
Because it became untenable. There were certain things happening in the party that our control procedures in the party were unable to handle. And I realised that I was just working very hard for nothing, and also putting up with things I shouldn't have to put up with. And I had no way of redressing those things, and I felt that I would be better as an independent, if I wanted to stand as an independent which I have done since then, or as an independent lobbyist. And I don't regret the decision. I think it was a wise one. Otherwise I would have been sidelined for years.
Standing as an independent, you stood mainly on environmental issues?
And how did that go? What was that like as an experience?
It's always hard standing as an independent at your own expense. Ah, you know, I hate to think, and I hope I never do add up how much standing on those sorts of principles has cost me. Because money isn't the important thing, but it certainly does become important when you're not wealthy. I think it drew attention to environmental issues perhaps, and my last - ah, second last time I stood was as a group, a green group. Not the Greens from Western Australia, that's two individual people. But there're three groups; my group which was battling on the brewery and foreshores, another group was battling on Buckland Hill and another area down near Fremantle, and another group that was trying to save Hepburn Heights, and we were all working very hard, and I said, 'Let's do it', and we did it. But we didn't win, but I think we influenced the result, which was another of the things you have to consider.
Given that you've worked so hard at these other causes, and you are a graduate in nuclear physics, you've taught science and mathematics at tertiary level, does it ever worry you that you're still always and dominatingly Shirley Strickland, the Olympic gold medal winner?
I'm not sure what you say is true. I can always tell the age of a person by what my name - what they think my name is. That's (laughter) every Strickland slips out, I say, 'Well that dates you'. I think I've been known as de la Hunty for a very long time. And I think it's not always that - but there was a time that I felt that, I wasn't sorry for my sporting records, I mean you couldn't be sorry for what you did - there's no regrets, but I just wish that, I had wished that I was seen, and hoped to be seen ultimately as someone more than just a sports person.
What do you think your sporting background did for you in relation to your public life?
It gave me personally not only the rewards of travel and self-esteem, or self-identity, not so much esteem, but it also opened doors for me, it opened doors where - well people wouldn't have asked me to stand for their party if I hadn't been well known. And being well known opens doors. And, it enabled me to take a leading role in those evolving conservation groups. All of that period when those conservation groups emerged, I was able to take a role in that, because people would ask me, and understand - they understood where I was coming from and they would ask me to come and help. So that's what I think has been the motivation for [that].
That's an advantage of fame. What are the disadvantages of fame?
Disadvantages are that people presume what you're - they're not major disadvantages, but people presume what they think about you before they meet you. Sometimes my joy is to move into a party where I can have fun but also know, nobody knows me, and they can just accept me or reject me for what I am, being what I am. And perhaps you can understand that yourself, but sometimes it's nice to know that people like me because of me, or they dislike me because of me, and not because of some preconception of what they have made of me.
Have you ever found recognition on the street a problem?
I used to, but people don't recognise me so much these days. Age has sort of helped that particular way. Sometimes they do, but it does have a daunting effect on your children and your - not my mother and father because they thoroughly enjoyed everything I did, but on my children. Sometimes I felt a bit guilty that they were overexposed, because they had my husband's name, and my name, and there was nothing I could do about that, and I think it's a problem for any person who's in the public eye that their children may get overexposure in a way that children don't like, or that it's detrimental, but there's nothing you can do about that.
Was it ever a problem do you think for the children to have such a high achiever as a mother?
Perhaps. I don't know.
Well I don't think I did for them. I tried very hard, but, you know, my medals were never in evidence. My children didn't even know I was an athlete, until I was asked to go down and coach the local primary school when my first son went to school. And I went down and coached the other children, and my children came home and said, 'Why don't you coach us?' And I would never have dreamt of suggesting that I coach my children. They didn't even know at that stage, but as they got older of course it became quite obvious, through teachers at the - teachers' impression of them. I can remember them saying to some of my children, 'What's wrong with you? You're, you're Shirley Strickland's child?'. You know, those sorts of things. But from me they never had any pressure. I felt, as I was dedicated to them, that I would make as much, as many opportunities as possible available to them, and they were all highly intelligent children, as was proved by their work, sport-wise whatever they wanted to do. And I made the opportunities available to them, you know. But I think they didn't suffer through having to achieve with me. They didn't know much about me frankly.
Would you describe yourself as a feminist?
Yes, I am a feminist. I am aware of the disabilities of being a female. I wasn't aware when I started my life, as evident in my attempts to do certain things. But I am a feminist because I'm quite well aware of the problems women have had in achieving, through - some of the things you can't change - I mean I had to take time out for children, and there's nothing I would say can compensate you for that. But I remember talking to one of my colleagues at the Edith Cowan University. One of my dear friends, and we were talking about feminism or something, and he looked at me and said, 'But you're not one of those feminists are you?'. And I immediately felt the barrier, that really I should deny that I was a feminist because I'd be more popular if I wasn't a feminist. And I wanted to be popular with my male colleagues. There were more - many more males than women in my career, in my profession anyhow. And so I said, I paused for a moment and I said, 'Well, as a matter of fact, I am'. And he said, 'Oh no, you think like a man.' Now if you follow that through you can see what a challenging statement that is. That made me hesitate and wonder what on earth was going on.
Well it was clearly the highest accolade he could think of.
... That's right, and he was doing it kindly. He was meaning to be kind.
So what form does your feminism take? Where do you, where do you see women's position? How have you seen it change? What makes you care about the situation of women in the world?
I have never been drawn into too much feminism because of my concern about environment, I mean you can't follow too many stars can you? And I think things have improved, and certainly we now have a lot of very clever women. I spent three years on the National Women's Consultative Committee in Canberra working on feminine issues. I am one of the foundation members of the Women In Sport Foundation. I have done a lot of work in sport on behalf of girls and women and fought with the authorities to get an equal chance for women. We've had some classic battles and some classic wins, but sometimes they slide back. As soon as you take the pressure off it slides back into the same old situation. But it's not my abiding conviction. I think it will happen, but it doesn't override my concern about environmental issues.
What was one of the classic wins you had? Is there anything you remember as a particular incident where you had to fight?
Well, we were under the pressure of the Federal Government to amalgamate our two independent, athletics bodies; the women's association, and the men's association. The men's association had the dominate control all the time, they controlled the programs, they controlled the selection, they controlled who went overseas, they controlled everything. But we were sixty per cent of the supporters, we did all the hard work, and - classic, just [a] classic example of where women's role was. So when the Federal Government enforced that unless we amalgamated there would be no further funding, this is in the days when funding started to become crucial, we decided we had to get the best we could out of it. And three women and three men - three young men and three older women, we got together and we hammered out for ages and finally worked - got a fifty per cent equality right through the board, and the first woman's president in Australia, and we achieved that and we had a compulsion on that that was to last, I think, five years. So that worked. But as soon as that started to fade in time, we've slid back now to the same sort of representation, the same sort of deal because we're not fully represented, and the tragic part is that when you have elected people to boards, you get perhaps some brave women putting up for election, they quite often will get no men's votes, because they didn't - they're old-fashioned men of the '40s and '50s which ran the sport in those days, didn't trust women's judgement. But the women would not vote for the women either; they would vote for the men, the old paternalistic bit. So it's very difficult in an open environment without affirmative action to get that balance persisting. That was a win, but it - you know it was a win temporary.
The same thing happens in education. I can remember going into one [when] affirmative action was enforced on the university. We, I went to a compulsory conference with top educators, and everyone had to go. I didn't want to go because I was close to retirement, but they said, 'No you must go'. So we had this address by the presenter and everything was great. The men were sitting there all happy - yes, this is a great concept that women - you know. But then the presenter started to describe what affirmative action was about. Well, he lost the male audience totally. And I think affirmative action in those universities is still not practised. Every time I hear a little bit of a rumour from somewhere, it's still not practised. But women just don't get invited to selection committees, they just don't get on the boards, so it's a very difficult problem, but not one that I'm prepared to spend the rest of my life on.
Well you've done quite a lot in pioneering things for women anyway in the course of your life. Were you conscious of that at the time?
I don't think so. I think it became, with my awareness of what was happening in the sport, and the way the local manager was controlling my whole life. I mean, I did a modelling course - I wanted to accept a position, and as a courtesy I notified him that I was going to take a modelling course, and he said, 'No, you can't do that. You can't use your name in modelling. That's going to attract attention'. Well, I went over his head, and I won, but you know that's the sort of attitude that I was being controlled by. So I became aware in a lot of different ways.
You found time to be very involved in a lot of public, community activity. What motivates you for that kind of engagement?
Well I have lived a long time, Robin, so there's plenty of time involved there. But I think it's a matter of a feeling of service. I think it relates to my deep-seated, childish feeling that I needed to use my time. I was always aware that my time was going to be limited. Everybody's time is limited and I wanted to use my time. So where I can manage it and where I think I'm capable of it, I always have responded, short of being overworked and overstressed. I still do so, I mean I do a large number of talks, and travel the country a lot, apart from the normal things I do. But just because I think I'm a service type person, maybe.
What kind of organisations and committees are you involved with right at this moment?
I'm on local government of course. That's the Melville City Council, and that has to take a fair amount of my time because we have regular meetings and when you become elected into that sort of level of government you can't just decide whether you're going to go or not, you have to go, and you have to do your part of the, of the team work. But I'm also involved in environmental matters, such as the Foreshores and Waterways Protection Council, as President. I respond to a lot of lobbying and to ... well we're still fighting that Swan Brewery issue. That's been going for ten years.
But there is, there are a lot of local issues that people ring me about, and it seems to me that some of the best ways in which I can help is to use the means and concerns of local residents for their own little bit of foreshore, their own little bit of nature or whatever, to protect that. And this grassroots involvement with local people is a very effective way to advise. And with the experience we've had with our officers, I think we, we do a good job there. We can tell them what we think is a good idea to do, how to lobby, who to go to, perhaps some of the background of the area, perhaps some of my massive mountain of literature on environmental issues. Those sorts of things is what I'm involved, apart from babysitting and grandchildren which is absolutely beautiful.
Children have played a very big part in your life, haven't they? You've always been interested in them, you've taught them, had a big family, you're still babysitting. What do children mean to you?
I don't know whether I can explain it, except that I suppose they're the future, but also, I'm very, a very gregarious-type person, I couldn't have been solitary. And I just find I am rejuvenated when I'm associated with young people. Even if it's being worn out by my little grandsons, and next week it'll be four of them, probably all in the house at the same time, God help me. But also I become rejuvenated when I find the time to go and coach young teenagers and young adults. I find I come home refreshed and rejuvenated. I guess it helps me, but that must be in my nature, I suppose.
You look like somebody who's very in control of your life. You've, you've always managed your life very well, you've fitted a lot in. You've always seemed to be in charge of yourself. And yet, there's also an emotional side to you, that every now and then bursts through. Do you feel it's very important to keep your emotions in check?
Oh, that's a hard one, isn't it? No, I think you have to work on emotions, I think, you ... to suppress your emotions. I'm not very well organised, Robin, you might think I am. I'm not very well organised, but when you have four children, you have to organise, and in my time of course, while my husband did a lot of great things in the house, and in supporting the family, I still had the whole of the planning to do, all the planning, all the shopping, all the cooking, all the cleaning except when I, you know, rebelled and got a cleaning lady once a week, until she became too dictatorial and I decided I'd rather leave the place as it was than get dictated to. But I have had to organise. This is one of the reasons I think a mature age person is a better student, and I - a mature age athlete is a better athlete, because you have learned those skills. It's like the skills become gradually - it's not as if someone dropped the whole lot on you at any one time. I had to work up to that. So I might look organised. It's partly the training that I've had to do, being a mother and operating the family, and also coping with the various things that I thought were important. But the emotional side, wow, you can't escape it, can you? You cannot really escape it.
You cried on your wedding day?
Yes I did.
Just for a little while. Yes, I do. A lot of people remind me, that later came to see me. Or spoke to me a while ago, and she said, 'You cried on your wedding day'. I said, 'Thank you'. 'Yes, I've still got the picture, would you like it?' 'No thank you.'
Was it just sheer joy or was it a feeling ...
No it wasn't sheer joy, it was apprehension of the decision that I'd been deferring for so long and was I doing the right thing. But, you know, we had to do it. It was like anything, if it gets really hyped up, you can't go on deferring that forever and wondering whether you're doing the right thing. So it was that sort of pressure. And partly because I was under extreme pressure from the press all the time.
You couldn't do anything privately?
Not a thing that I - maybe I did, but not much. (laughter)
And that apprehension that you had, did you ever regret it? Did you ever regret that wedding day?
No, I don't regret anything that's ever happened to me, or I've done. I don't see any point in that. You never get a second chance at anything. I don't regret marrying that man. I don't regret crying. I don't regret anything that I've ever done.
You seem to go even further than that. It's not just that you don't regret it, but you actually make a virtue of things that other people might have seen as a disadvantage.
You grew up on a dirt-poor farm with no shoes but you saw that as a good basis for an athletic career.
I wasn't aware, I wasn't aware of it being deprived.
No, do you see how you've made the best of things?
But it's only in retrospect. It's only when you are aware that there's a problem, that you're being deprived, or you're at a disadvantage that you get concerned about it, I guess. And you live within the times. I mean people try and compare my Olympic wins. They try and compare times when I was an athlete, and now, what's changed and why, what's better and what's worse. I said, 'It's really ...' - and 'How would you have compared with today's athletes?' I see no purpose in comparisons from one era to another. You live within the period that you've got. And you can't really compare my runs with someone else's, unless you get into really difficult areas. Ah, my behaviours, or whatever, you live within the times that you, you're granted, and I think comparisons, as they say, tend to be odious, if you start trying to compare one with the other.
But even just looking at your own life, you feel that a lot of things that other people might have seen as disadvantage, actually put you in a good position. If you look at your youth, the fact that there was no training about during the war, so you saw the advantages in those things, and not the disadvantages. Do you think that's been a way that you've done well in your life by concentrating on the positive like that?
Probably. But when people talk to me about disadvantages, and it's only quite in the last twenty years that I've started to - because of the questions I get asked, you know, what was it like in the olden days? And how - I have had to think back and say, well, this was good, and what would I have done about that? I can remember when I had to talk in Queensland beside the PM, I have to tell you, he sat beside me. And it was all a matter of what has changed in your time in sport? And I realised that my audience was absolutely shocked and stunned with me just making simple comparisons. As I told Robert DeCastella who was at the same table - in my speech I said I grew up on fat meat, cream, butter, masses of milk, they would never do that today. But that's what I grew up on. And so people find that - and I grew up with no shoes - people find that hard to understand. So I guess it's those sorts of things that people have asked me to sort of think back and [say] what was the difference. And I start asking myself, well, that's what it was when I was younger, what were the bad things? What are the good things for me? Obviously nothing was totally bad. And it's forced me to do that sort of introspection and comparison-type address, which, because I'm getting older, people think is surprising.
Well they think it gives you a chance to look back and see patterns emerging, and I suppose that's a pattern that I would detect in your life, that you have always looked to see that when something looked like a disadvantage, you've seen it as something that you could make the most of.
That's possibly so. I think it also helps people to look at me and say well she's been a success. What's she been a success as? And whatever they're particularly interested in, she's been a success, she hasn't fallen down, and that I suppose is why they ask me about these things. But I'd only be one of thousands of people who have been in those times and been successful. I mean I - there's nothing as, anything - my difficulty on the farms were nothing. In fact they were nothing compared with what my mother and father had to go through. They were typical of so many people. And they were successes.
People are interested in what makes a champion I think, and the idea of the kind of personality, not only that can win, but in your case, you stretched that period of success much longer than anyone thought was possible, and they look to the character to that. What do you think makes a champion?
It's a fairly difficult equation, isn't it? I think there are a few things that you can't actually pin down, there are some intrinsics in there. But I've often told my athletes, and my students I suppose too, and my children, that to me I wouldn't have been what you call a champion if I had accepted failure when it first came. If I hadn't - if I'd looked at failure and said, 'Well, that's it'. And I think that champions are not those who are specifically heavily talented physically or mentally - obviously unless you've got a bit of talent physically it makes it a bit harder - my greatest joy is to take someone who's not very talented physically and turn them into a champion, and that's skill, and it's great. That's terribly rewarding. But I think that, given that there are certain basics that, in sport, a person needs to do better than other people, I think the champion that comes through all that is the one who doesn't - sees failure, and passes on, and learns from that failure. I guess lots of people have said that wise thing but I think that's wise, I think that's true.
And you'd watched the contrast in your parents, when your father succumbed in a way to failure, and your mother overcame it and saw the future for the family? Do you think that influenced you too?
I think my father being a lot older than my mother - he was quite old when he married actually, and also my mother having children probably sorted those two out. I mean Father, my father - he had the responsibility of these children to carry through those hard times - might have acted differently, I don't know. But with my mother there, younger and with her children, and with the maternal instinct, I think that probably makes the difference between those two people. I got to understand my father later, but I suspect it was because he had such a fantastic helper and supporter and worker, because she was a labourer. She was just a labourer, apart from all the mental side. She worked so hard.
Was religion - has that played any part in your life?
No, it hasn't. When I grew up we all went to the same little hall. When some pastor or priest came through, everybody went. Nobody - there was no difference in religion. I didn't find it terribly exciting, it was just Mum and Dad took us, and we usually played outside while they sang a few hymns. It had no meaning for me. It had no meaning for me at school when I was forced to go to school and forced to become confirmed in the Anglican [faith] and it has [had] no meaning for me since, really. It has only meaning where I see the terrible things that in the name of religion happen in the world. That has meaning for me. Oh, but I do recognise that a lot of people who are religious get an enormous amount of strength from it. I've never had it. I don't think I will ever need it, and I see no reason why I should. But I'm totally tolerant of the importance of religion to a lot of other people. But the crimes against religion are in my view also absolutely shocking.
So what do you think's going to happen when you die?
I just think I'm going to disappear back to where I came, out of the ground. I have no concept of future life. I don't want any concept of future life. It doesn't add up with my feeling, it doesn't add up with my scientific training, but a lot of people change when death faces them, maybe I'll change. I don't know. It's [an] experience I'll have to still go through. I don't know.
In the meantime you just try to get the most out of this one.
Yes, that's right. Try and screw as much as I can out of it. I know there's a limited time. How long it will be, I don't know.
What sort of things would you tell your grandchildren about the way to approach living their lives?
Not that I can imagine you sitting down giving them a lecture.
... no, I don't think so.
... but what would you, what would be the things you'd want to get across that you feel people need for a good life?
I suppose it's a matter of suggesting they test their own boundaries in the way of physical and mental abilities without ... to test the potential that's around them. There isn't any point in waiting for things to develop around you until you can make up your mind. You have to take whatever environment you're in. I would probably tell them that. I think I would ask them to be careful with their selection of a partner, but then make the partner for life. That is something that I think is vitally important if those grandchildren are going to have children. I think all children need a stable and loving home to grow up in. And it is worrying me that this this becoming such a rare thing these days. And it's [an] attitude to personal relationships that I think is perhaps missing.
So you felt tempted during your marriage, but you had a real belief in the importance of fidelity within a union?
Oh I wasn't tempted to be - I was tempted to be flattered. And tempted too, because I hadn't met a lot of men before I married my husband. I mean it was - he was always the first man in my environment, first man and he was certainly very determined he was going to be the only man in my environment. So I was flattered by attention. I was never tempted to be - to think of taking - to go to somebody else, in particular after I'd had children. That would have been impossible, absolutely impossible. No marriage is perfect, but I was determined that I would put up with anything that wasn't perfect, and I hoped that he would too, for the sake of the children. And I think that's what I would tell my grandchildren, 'Please, if you're going to get married, and you're going to have children, stay with it, stay with it'.
Do you feel that family continues to be really important even though we see it breaking up and being less stable than it was? [Do] you still feel that ideal of family is central to your view of the world?
Well recently my studies of this through various experiences, I think enhance my feeling, and perhaps the opinion of professionals that an unstable family background tends to develop a habit of that, that the next relationship of that person, or of the children of that union, tends to be not trusted and unstable. And for the sake of the children this is what I think was my concern, [for] the sake of the children that you don't perpetuate your particular problems, or your particular - maybe it's compulsions, maybe it's indulgences - onto the future of those children, who are, I suspect, going to carry some of that uncertainty and distrust further. But that's a personal issue.
You've always been the image for Australian women of radiant health and fitness, of womanly fitness. You've had four children but you were the fastest woman in the world, and this image of health and glowing fitness has come through to us. Have you always been healthy?
Yes I have been. I mean I chose my parents very, very well. My mother died recently at a hundred and a half, And my father and my grandparents all lived long lives. so I think I chose parents well, but I haven't ... in recent years, in the last ten years anyhow, I've become subject to some lung problems, and I didn't realise what it was until last year, when my doctor son decided he'd hijack me into hospital, horrible fellow, and they kept me there for a week, and I realised that I had pneumonia. In fact I had had pneumonia every two years for quite some time, so I've had to be a lot more careful with my lungs and my general fitness, I suppose, whatever fitness is. Be a bit more careful and not ignore persistent lung infections.
You'd had this and sort of ignored it, not noticed that you were sick?
Yes, I had, I can remember when I was first seriously - when I realise now I was seriously ill. of course I still had a family to take care of, and like I suspect many women, I just battled on, and battled on, and not one of those five adults said, 'Mother go to hospital', or go to the doctor, or something like that. Not one of them, but I was really so sick. But I battled on, then two years later the same thing, and two years later, so when I was finally, as I said, hijacked into hospital, my son absolutely conned me into hospital, and I - they wouldn't let me go. I then realised how serious it was.
You'd never had pneumonia as a child?
Yes I did have pneumonia as a very young child. That was before there were any doctors or hospitals. I think there was a doctor, but no hospitals. But I don't remember being ill on that basis before. I know that was the time when my father, who had telephones in boxes and had all the machinery for the old wind-up telephones in boxes, and never had time to put it up, but when I was so ill and they had to take me to the doctor, and the doctor was trying to get back to us to tell them how serious I was, there was no telephone. The telephone went up very fast after that. But mostly I'm very well. I just now realise that sprint training, my sprinting career has had nothing whatsoever to do with big lung functions. I'm not a marathoner.
So you don't think you could have done the longer distances even if you'd tried?
Oh I don't think so, I thought - I think I would have been too large for the marathon, but nothing existed above 200 metres, anyhow, in my time and I would have found it boring. I think I find long-distance walking even boring. I find walking even boring.
Are you fit now? I mean apart from this lung problem, do you exercise?
Oh I don't do very much exercise. I have enough to do in my opinion to, perhaps, stay healthy, but I have a fairly big task in managing my house and the gardens, and my coaching. But I do occasionally go for a longish walk just out of sheer conscience, but I have to say that I've always felt that exercise for me had to be interesting and have some purpose to it, rather than just my health. Maybe I'll have to change.
Oh yes, I can still run, I can still catch my little grandsons. They don't know that until I - they torment me, then I can catch them. But not for very long.
So what do you feel about ageing? I mean what's your approach to it? You don't seem to be stopping doing anything.
Does anybody stop because they're getting older? I have to pretend I'm something else. Recently I've boasted when people start saying, making some comments about age, that I'm close to 70, which I am, but it's - you know the old - I can't really answer you Robin, it's what you feel. I can't even walk into a dress shop and look at those dresses that I see women of 70 and 80 and 90 wearing. I couldn't stand it. But I think it's got nothing to do with age. I think age - it's your body and your body will tell you what you're going to do, but it doesn't have to tell your mind how you have to look and how you have to behave.
So you don't feel really inside yourself any different from the way you felt 20 years ago?
Ah, I suppose I do. I certainly know my skin is falling apart, and that's because of too much sun exposure. I still understand the feelings of myself when I was younger, in fact when I was a teenager, and was going through this romancing bit, I resented already the older me who was going to look back and say, well what a silly thing she was doing. I had this sort of dichotomy of my older me who was going to remember and it was an exposure of my teenager to this older me that was going to be a bit humiliating. I always remember that. But I don't think basically one changes very much. It's just experience. It's just the old computer up here that stores all that massive amount of information over a period of [a] lifetime, and you draw on that. I don't think you basically deep down change, just the experiences that get stored away and used.
Do you feel just as alert and together mentally as you always were?
Very hard to tell. I think you are as alert as you need to be. I know that I would like to have a lot more time to - and I mean time to read more widely, and understand more widely and perhaps travel, but alertness, I think I am as alert - well I don't know when it starts showing, and that's probably the nice thing about age, you don't know when it's happening. Are you noticing anything now?
No, I don't know. My children haven't told me, and I haven't got anyone closer than them to tell me if they see any signs.
I suspect a mixture of reasons, and I've had to think about those reasons when people started to ask me that sort of question: oh, why did you do that? And I guess it's partly because I found I could do it well. And that's always a very motivating thing. And in my teaching and in my coaching, I know that if I can have one of my charges do something well, it's extraordinarily motivating. Doing something well really draws them in to do it better, but it's really uplifting to be able to do something well. I think that helped me, that I found I could do it well. But also, it was the chance of travel, of seeing the world which I probably wouldn't otherwise have seen, and certainly wouldn't have seen in that sort of an environment, which was not terribly natural but very exciting, and in the motivation, that was pretty much selfish I think, but as far as my country was concerned, I was aware in the early years of my career that nobody knew much about Australia. They were very curious about Australians, and I became very nationalistic and proud of my country. I started to value things that I'd taken for granted. I can remember being - when I went to Poland, and a lot of the people there didn't know what language we spoke - some of them even thought we were all black like South Africans or our own indigenous people. The ignorance about Australia - I guess is an aftermath of World War Two - was pretty deep. So I became really interested in explaining my nature, my nation, describing my nation, and feeling very, very proud of my nation, and I see no reason why that should have been anything but a very good attribute to do.
Did you feel patriotic when you were running?
Yes, I suppose so.
Were you thinking - I'm running for Australia?
Not so much so, I don't think so. I think most people love running for their country. They love winning for their country, but you can't carry that sort of a burden along all through your training and all through the torching of your person, both physically and mentally. You don't keep saying, well I'll do this for Australia. You say, I'm doing it for me. I think that's what most people react like that.
There's often a lot of counting of medals. You have earned more medals than any other runner in Australia, and Dawn Fraser has earned one more medal than you internationally. These sorts of comparisons are often made. What do you feel about this medal count?
I don't like it really. I find it denigrates everybody else. And I have - I'm aware of quite a lot of quite bitter people in my time and subsequently, who have gone to the Olympic Games or the Commonwealth Games and done their very utmost, have done what we call PBs, that's personal bests. In other words they've succeeded at a higher level than they ever did before, and nobody ever speaks to them again, they just drop out because they didn't get the medal. And particularly they didn't get the right colour medal. And so I think it's a false premise and it does put down a lot of people. I'm not too sure who invented all this medal count. Certainly the Olympics, it is not an official count. The media really throw it up very quickly as a competitive medal count, but it's meant to be an individual medal. That's what - that was the principle of the Olympics, and the actual pressure, or the attention given to the right colour is, I think, a little bit sad.
Is that why when it came to light that you were actually robbed of a medal, that you didn't pursue it?
Well, I suppose in the comparison between who's got the most and what - those comparisons that I always feel are odious anyhow - I don't think anyone should be compared from one era to another, from one sport to another, but in those comparisons, and I only had seven medals, is this failure? Perhaps if I could have got one more, who would have ever been able to beat that? And in actual fact no-one could these days, because nobody can last that long. Nobody has the opportunities to do that sort of thing. But, how would've I stood, and how would've I thought of myself if I'd gone to that person in Canada, I think it was Canada, and said, 'I want your medal back, someone made a mistake way back there'. You couldn't do that. It was something that came in retrospect. The one I do regret was the dropping of the baton in Helsinki. Not only was that a gold medal for me, but it was a gold medal for three other people, particularly the two who hadn't got any other medal to take home. I regret that one. But not the one that was a misjudgement.
How did the misjudgement occur?
I only presume from the articles that have been sent to me, and the photocopy of the film that they looked at, that it was in those days not a photocopy, not a photo-finish, it was a personal judgement, and who knows? They might not have been correct. The original judgement might have been correct. But it did answer some questions for me, because when my parents heard the calling of the race I was called as being first or second, and they couldn't understand how I finished up fourth. But that does explain that discrepancy, but who would care? Crazy to bother to try and ask anyone to get that back.
You've always been very independent. You don't like the thought of being controlled or pushed around, do you?
No, that's true enough. But I'm a team person as well. Certainly I'm independent. I've always been independent. I had to be.
Well I had to be when I left home at 12 years old. I had to, although my life was controlled by the people who ran the children's world of agony as we used to call it; CWA. Ah, my life was controlled by people, but to a large extent I had to make my own decisions from then on. And I made decisions not easily. I still don't make decisions easily. I still take a long time thinking it through. So maybe I'm independent, but I think it through, and I have to say, if I make up my mind that this is right, that isn't easy to shake, and I don't think there are too many decisions I've made where I've had to take - where I've been allowed to take time, that have ever been proven to be wrong. So I'm glad that I'm not a hasty decision maker. I think that I've made better decisions.
Do you ever feel that sport plays too big a part in Australian life?
It certainly plays a major [part], and of course it's more than just a sport now, it's a major industry, so I guess economically it plays a major part. Whether it's too big a part I don't know. I don't think I would seek to reduce the role of sport. I think we should enhance perhaps some of the other aspects of sport. Certainly it's got a major contribution to health beyond the extremes that we sometimes see. But the influence of healthy advertising, such as we have in the West Australian Quit Campaign against tobacco, I've fought against tobacco smoking, and tobacco companies for years, for thirty years and it's a joy to me that that sort of control, such as it is, is now being put into sport, I think that's a good way. I think sport suffers a little bit and maybe contributes something because of its high profile in advertising - that's the elite level. But I think it's in the equation of health and the stability of the community, sport is a very important element, and it's just a matter of how it's handled.
But you yourself always believed in a balance between the mind and the body. And yet, you're always recognised much more for sporting achievements than the fact that, at the time that very few women did, you were an honours graduate in physics.
Does that - do you think shows a sort of emphasis on - too much on one side?
Well I'm not too sure whether that shows a community influence - I think perhaps that I was a graduate before I became a sports person - and I also didn't ever indulge in research, I just sort of fell into teaching and became a teacher, probably highlighted the later sporting career rather than my earlier achievements. And I was - wasn't until relatively recently when people started to ask me what did I do? Or, asking about myself, and I said, 'Well, actually I'm a nuclear physicist', that I saw people's eyes open and said, 'What?' And it was really, I mean, becoming a nuclear physicist is no more challenging than becoming any other type of graduate, it's just a matter of how you go about it. And I didn't have this apprehension because I probably grew up without any apprehensions instilled in me. But I would like to be remembered, if I am remembered - I'll certainly be remembered for sport because that's sort of put down in medals and history and the many, many sport histories that are written these days. And I'll tell you something Robin, I'[m] never going to write my - have anyone write my, or write my sporting memories. I'm never going to do that. But I'd like to perhaps be remembered where it matters, if being remembered is important - 'cause I won't be looking back at it - for someone who worked towards the environment and worked towards the betterment of, not only the human share of this environment, but the whole ecological system upon which we virtually depend. That's what I'd like to be remembered [for], and I'd like to not be remembered as that, but to have had some influence on it.
Why wouldn't you have your sporting memories written up?
Oh I wouldn't do it myself. No. I wouldn't want anyone to do it for me, either. It's just been written - I mean when people ring me or ask me for some either interviews on sport, I mean I do - a lot of children ring. They have to choose someone to write a project on, and a lot of students, older students also, select me as a project. And I say, 'Look, go and read these books, go and read that book'. 'Oh we can't find it.' I said, 'Yes you will. Ask for this one and that one. I mean don't ask me to repeat all that'. And I couldn't. I couldn't do it. It's pointless to go through that. If I did that I'm sure it would sell, you know, 50 copies. Ah, be then sold off for five dollars in the shops, and why am I doing this? Pointless.
Can you imagine ever retiring to doing very little?
Only if my body and my mind compel me to. It's pretty boring doing nothing. I ... sometimes in this house I have a day when there's nothing going to happen. I think, oh isn't that lovely. But I very soon get tired of that and think, why shouldn't I be going and doing X or Y or Z. You know, it can get very boring doing nothing, and sometimes the things I have to do are not terribly enjoyable. Be nice if I could just forget about environmental problems in the world, and just start having a ball. I envy people who can do that. I'd like to have a ball, but I don't think I ever [could] do that and forget that I'm ... my convictions about the future for my family, my children, my grandchildren, and for everybody's children really.
If I had the opportunity. I don't think I'm going to, Robin. It would have to be pretty good, and pretty nice, and there are great difficulties in forming another relationship with someone, someone new. I didn't think I could live on my own for the rest of my life, but I think I'm going to have to do that.
Now going right back again to the beginning - your life back on the farm. Could you describe how it was for your parents? How that farm household ran, and what it was like for those farmers out there in that region, pioneering the bush?
The problem with that particular area and many such areas, because it's a very large area, is that nobody knew anything about its potential. No-one knew anything about its long-term rainfall. Or, anything about the world El Niño, any of those world climatic conditions. So that those who dared to take up that particular country, did it in an ignorance and a belief that only by selecting the right parcel, which might be in a valley, or might be somewhere, and chopping down the trees and then no-one realised what was going to happen when the rabbits came - I think it's the ignorance of what - of the task that they confronted that made it so extremely difficult for those farmers. That ignorance isn't there any more, but I think that's what made it so difficult for my father and my mother, because they were starting a new life. It was land. Land was supposed to be a way in which you could get on, and get richer, bring up the next generation. Ah, they didn't have enough information.
What kind of difficulties did they face?
Just about anything you can mention. Initially the lack of labour because it was all hand labour. And lack of capital as well. But, drought, ah, not so much fire, but certainly floods, because when it floods as is happening in Australia at the moment, big floods, they take everything. It takes the sheep, takes the fences, takes everything you had. There weren't that many floods, but I do remember one particular flood. Ah, depression, lack of markets. The times when, through matters you couldn't control, like world markets, or monopolies on wheat bags, or the banks closing down, or all of those things which you couldn't control, those had an enormous depressing effect on farmers. Things you could control, like coming back next year and replanting, trying another crop, those sorts of things were not as depressing and demoralising as these matters you couldn't control, when you could produce a top wheat crop, beautiful grain, massive production, and you couldn't sell it. It wasn't worth the value of the bags to take - in the days when they had bags - to take it to the railway station and the transport. That is a terrible thing when you've got children to feed.
How do you remember a typical day on the farm?
In the days when I was there I was not aware too much of these trauma, I probably was aware implicitly, but I was either doing school, or my particular day would have been always collecting the eggs; if it was lamb time, feeding the lambs. If it was kangaroo time, chasing kangaroos, that sort of changing kaleidoscope that takes place all over the period of twelve months on the farm, and just being part of this team group, enjoying the meals my mother used to cook, and I was not aware of the difficulties. I became aware of them later, and through my mother's memories, and also through the records that we've got on the family of the tribulations, particularly when war intervened. Then of course labour shortage, my brother was running three farms as a very young man. Those are all the extreme difficulties. But in between, in the spring and the winter, it was beautiful country. The wild flowers, when they still existed, just flowered. The vegetables, you could put a vegetable seed in the ground and it would just go, boom. Beautifully rewarding times on the farm, but it did not carry you through. It didn't carry us through the summers when we couldn't even afford to come down for a holiday, and so we had - just had to sit out century heat, day after day, twelve hours of the day.
Yes, but mostly we'd get out of that - that was hotter than outside. We would go into what we used to call the bush shed, the sheds that they built of scrub and thicket, that was where we used to live. We used to sleep there, we used to eat there. I've got pictures of big Christmas parties in the bush shed. Everybody had to have a bush shed, and a Coolgardie cooler later. That's the only way we survived.
You copied the Aborigines with a bush shed?
Yes we did.
Have you had a lot to do with Aborigines in Western Australia?
I'm having more to do with them now, through my experiences and my work with the foreshores. And I did not ever know nor in our area did I ever see any Aborigines. Nor did I ever in my wandering through the bush ever find any artefacts or any evidence of their presence, but apparently they were there. But they probably knew it was pretty impoverished country too. I don't think they ever stayed there, it was just they went through there. Sometimes to get ochre from the local hill that had ochre in it. But since - and I used to think that, like so many hundreds and thousands of people I suppose - that any problems with the Aborigines that might have developed in the past, were really nothing to do with me. I could do nothing about it, and I was sad about it. But now my experiences with meeting Aborigines and hearing their story, have now turned me into an Aboriginal activist, because I realise it wasn't just then, it is now, and a lot of what they are complaining about has taken place in my lifetime. And so I've become quite committed to that. I think Australia has a long way to go before its human rights, so-called human rights, responsibilities, and aspects that it adopts, [are] shown to have taken effect in Australia. So I am a committed one and I will probably be like that for the rest of my life. I mean, I understand the pressures they're under. I understand the way the white man's values are eroding some of their values and causing dissension between them as they see land rights in one aspect for preservation of their culture and in another as a way of becoming the white man's wealth, which they have a right to, as well as we do. I see the problems, and I'll probably be working on that for a very long time where I can be effective. But I'm not a spokesperson for Aboriginal people. I work where I can with those people and I respect what they're doing, and I have an enormous respect for their difficulties today.