Australian Biography

Shirley Strickland de la Hunty - full interview transcript

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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 ...

... He was very handsome.

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.

When did he die?

1980.

And how did that happen?

Just a sudden heart attack.

Was he fit and well.

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.

Oh yes.

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 ...

... the third.

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.

Terribly hard to give up.

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 ...

... an odd system.

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.

With all ...

...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 did you?

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.

What was your biggest worry?

How was I going to get home from school? How was I going to get home? Was I going to walk?

How far was that?

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.

[end of tape]

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