Australian Biography

Shirley Strickland de la Hunty - full interview transcript

Tape of 8

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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.

How did that happen?

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 ...

How was that decided?

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.

How did you get there?

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.

And the games themselves?

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.

Like a celebration of peace?

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 ...

Why? Why that?

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?

In '48.

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 ...

Why is that?

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.

How did that work?

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.

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?


(Overlapping) You're too ...

(overlapping) No.

... well developed?

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.

How did you 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 ...

Oh yes.

... principles.

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.

[end of tape]

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