Australian Biography

Shirley Strickland de la Hunty - full interview transcript

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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.

Do you remember?

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.

Do I?

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?

Um.

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.

Can you still run?

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?

Not one little bit.

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.

Why did you run?

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.

Where does that come from?

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.

[end of tape]

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