Australian Biography

Shirley Strickland de la Hunty - full interview transcript

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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 ...

How were you welcomed?

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.

What was that record?

11.3 metres - 11.3 seconds for the 100 metres.

How long did that last for?

(Overlapping) That lasted for something like 9 years.

Is that right?

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.

And it was disputed publicly?

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.

And did it pay off?

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)

'Cause ...

It's a little bit hard isn't it?

He was a geologist wasn't he?

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.

What was it about it?

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.

It was all at ...

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.

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