With the Tokyo 2020 Games only days away, we count down New Zealand’s greatest Olympians. Today, we look at numbers 15 to six.
Yesterday we revealed the 25th to 16th ranked athletes.
15 – Sir John Walker
Gold: 1500m, Montreal, 1976
Olympic gold at the 1976 Montreal Games was the crowning achievement for John Walker in a remarkable international running career spanning nearly 20 years.
Following in the footsteps of Jack Lovelock and Peter Snell, Walker arrived as New Zealand’s third great miler at the 1974 Commonwealth Games in Christchurch.
Walker ran the second fastest 800m by a New Zealander to claim bronze before playing a leading role in a historic 1500m final.
He dipped almost a second under Jim Ryun’s 1967 world record in a time of 3:32.5s, but had to settle for the silver medal behind Tanzania’s Filbert Bayi.
Walker beat Bayi the next year, when he entrenched himself as a track and field star.
In Gothenburg on August 12, 1975, Walker became the first man to run under 3:50s for the mile. His world record would stand for four years.
Due to an African boycott, Bayi was not in Montreal for the Olympics in 1976, leaving Walker as the overwhelming favourite for the 1500m title at his first Games.
There were a few worries after he failed to advance beyond the first round of the 800m, but Walker was dominant in his favoured event.
He won his heat comfortably, before winning a tight semifinal to secure a place in the nine-man final on July 31.
In the absence of Bayi, who was a renowned front-runner, the 1500m final was slow with a 62-second opening lap.
Walker then followed Ireland’s Eamonn Coghlan to the front of the field and Coghlan led for the next couple of laps before the tall Aucklander with the flowing locks made his move.
Walker was never caught after taking the lead with around 300m remaining, claiming gold in a time of 3:39.17s, ahead of Belgian Ivo Van Damme and Paul-Heinz Wellmann of West Germany.
His international career continued for another 14 years, but he never again reached the heights of 1975 and 1976.
After an injury prevented him from attending the 1978 Commonwealth Games, politics meant he couldn’t defend his Olympic title in Moscow in 1980.
But he did make one more Olympic appearance, finishing a creditable eighth in the 5000m in Los Angeles in 1984.
14 – Sarah Ulmer
Gold: 3000m individual pursuit, Athens, 2004
Sarah Ulmer’s performance at the Athens Olympics stands above all others in New Zealand’s Olympic history.
Not only did she deliver New Zealand’s first (and only) gold medal in cycling, but she did so in world record-breaking fashion, completing a transformation from talented teen to world-beater.
Aged just 18 Ulmer won silver in the 3000m individual pursuit at the 1994 Commonwealth Games in Canada, having won junior world titles in the individual pursuit and points race earlier that year.
Two years later she attended her first Olympics. She finished seventh in the individual pursuit in Atlanta. She qualified with the sixth best time of 3:43.176s, 10 seconds slower than the gold-medal winning ride.
Having won the individual pursuit at the 1998 Commonwealth Games, Ulmer was viewed as a medal hopeful at the Sydney Olympics in 2000.
But she was not in the best of health and finished fourth; missing bronze by .08s to one of the women she had beaten in Kuala Lumpur two years earlier, Great Britain’s Yvonne McGregor.
Ulmer had earlier been lapped in her semifinal by eventual gold medallist Leontien van Moorsel of the Netherlands, who was on her way to setting a new world record.
Then came the turning point. Ulmer changed coach after the Sydney Games and under Brendan Cameron began to make dramatic improvements.
She retained her Commonwealth title in Manchester in 2002 in 3:32.467s, more than six seconds faster than she’d recorded in the bronze medal ride two years earlier and under two seconds outside van Moorsel’s world record.
The world record was Ulmer’s in May 2004, when she won the world title in 3:30.604s, making her the favourite for gold in Athens later that year.
She started her third Olympics with a stunning ride in qualifying, clocking 3:26.400s, more than four seconds lower than her previous best.
That came after van Moorsel and Australian Katie Mactier had gone under the old time themselves just moments earlier.
Ulmer then set the quickest time in the first round to book a place in the medal ride against Mactier.
The Australian made a strong start and led by about a second after the first 1000m. More efficient under Cameron, Ulmer reversed the margin through 2000m and went on to win by three seconds in 3:24.537s, a new world record.
Ulmer was given the honour of carrying the New Zealand flag into the closing ceremony in what was to be her last act as an Olympian.
13 – Sir Murray Halberg
Gold: Athletics, 5000m, Rome, 1960
Murray Halberg’s work with crippled children, plus his athletic performances, and his association with the country’s premier annual sports awards, place him among the elite New Zealanders.
Unlike his mate Peter Snell, Halberg arrived at the Rome Olympics of 1960 rated among the more favoured runners in the 5000m.
After all, he had won the three-mile gold at the 1958 Empire Games in Cardiff, had been a world class miler through the middle of that decade – in an era of outstanding middle distance men – and was regarded as a senior figure in the New Zealand Games team.
Master athletics coach Arthur Lydiard, who oversaw the pair, and others such as Barry Magee – who won bronze in the marathon in Rome – Bill Baillie and Jeff Julian, on their gruelling training runs in the hills of Auckland’s west, later remarked that he had concerns over how the 21-year-old Snell would cope in Rome; but no such worries over Halberg.
Snell and Halberg were to become inextricably linked on September 2, 1960. They were responsible for what became known as New Zealand athletics’ golden hour.
Snell won the 800m final, with a desperate lunge at the line, the first of his three Olympic gold medals.
Halberg didn’t see the race. He was in the tunnel under Rome’s Olympic stadium preparing for his race. He had qualified for the final comfortably, finishing second in his heat.
Another incentive for Halberg was the memory of finishing a disappointing 11th in the 5000m at Melbourne four years earlier.
“I did not do too well at Melbourne. I was quite resolved that when I returned to the Olympic arena it would not be as someone who was an also-ran,” Halberg said.
Now, as the athletes were led down the tunnel towards the track, and knowing when Snell was running, Halberg saw officials coming towards them.
“They were looking a bit stunned. I said ‘who won the 800m?’ They said ‘Schnell’. I could not believe it. That for me was the last piece of the jigsaw. I consciously remember a thought pattern, saying to myself, ‘Pete’s won it, so can I’.”
Three laps from the end, Halberg ran clear, 20, 25, 30m ahead. From then on “it simply became a matter of staying on my feet and keep moving forward until I finally got there”.
Halberg won in 13min 43.76 seconds, almost two seconds ahead of Germany Hans Grodotzki.
12 – Barbara Kendall
Gold: Windsurfing, Barcelona, 1992
Silver: Windsurfing, Atlanta, 1996
Bronze: Windsurfing, Sydney, 2000
One of the most enduring images from the 1992 Olympics is the sight of a beaming Barbara Kendall celebrating madly at the top of the podium.
At 24, the boardsailing great cemented her place in New Zealand Olympic history, becoming the first woman to win gold since Yvette Williams 40 years earlier.
Despite this, she was not even the first in her family to win Olympic gold. Her older brother Bruce had done so four years earlier in Seoul, adding to the bronze medal he picked up at the LA Games in 1984.
Kendall had almost given away hopes of emulating Bruce in winning the Olympic boardsailing competition when she broke her wrist earlier in the year.
Fortunately, the Olympic trials were delayed, giving her time to recover and prepare herself, often by training with Bruce and other top male competitors.
With a less than ideal build-up, Kendall went to Barcelona, where the women’s boardsailing class was included in the Olympic programme for the first time, with few expectations.
The young Kiwi established a lead midway through the regatta, but the racing remained tight throughout, with Kendall needing a sixth place or better in the final race to secure the gold medal. She finished third to seal the deal comfortably.
The win kicked off a trifecta of medals for Kendall. She came close to retaining her Olympic title at Savannah during the 1996 Atlanta Games, but eventually had to concede to Lai-Shan Lee, of Hong Kong, after finishing placings of 2-3-6-1-10-5-5-6-2.
The Auckland boardsailor completed her set of Olympic medals by winning bronze in Sydney in 2000, becoming just the third Kiwi behind Mark Todd and Simon Dickie to win medals at three separate Olympics.
There was speculation Kendall might retire at that point, and when she and husband Shayne Bright had their first child, Samantha, in 2001, it seemed even more likely.
Instead Kendall came back to be as dominant as ever, regaining the world crown in 2002 (she had won the title previously in 1998 and 1999) in Thailand at the age of 36, and earning selection for her fourth successive Olympics with two subsequent second placings at world championships.
She should have been in the medal mix in Athens as well, but two devastating results, where she was ruled to have crossed the start line too soon, ultimately cost her. A look at her finishing placings shows just how costly those false starts were: 1-9-27-2-27-5-5-3-1-1-4.
“I definitely feel like I threw away a medal in Athens,” said Kendall. “One of [the false starts] was my fault, the other wasn’t. It was just about the only time in 15 years I wasn’t in the top three at a world championship or Olympic event, so I was shattered.”
It was that disappointment that may have been the motivation for Kendall to give it another crack in Beijing, qualifying for her fifth Olympic Games at the age of 40. She finished a creditable sixth at her final Olympic competition in 2008, eventually retiring in 2010 after 24 years at the top of her sport.
11 – Ian Ferguson
Gold: K-1 500m, Los Angeles, 1984
Gold: K-2 500m, Los Angeles, 1984
Gold: K-4 1000m, Los Angeles, 1984
Gold: K-2 500m, Seoul, 1988
Silver: K-2 1000m, Seoul, 1988
Many Olympians joke about keeping their medals in a sock drawer. Ian Ferguson would almost need a wardrobe to house his.
In a four-year period between 1984 and 1988, the kayaker set records that may never be broken.
He was New Zealand’s first – and to this day only – triple gold medallist at a single Games and no other Kiwi has equalled his career tally of four golds.
Ferguson won five medals in total (a mark matched only by teammate Paul MacDonald among New Zealanders) and was the first Kiwi to win two golds on a single day.
His feats, along with those of MacDonald, Alan Thompson and Grant Bramwell, were the cornerstone of a remarkable Los Angeles Olympiad for New Zealand, which yielded eight golds in total.
Alongside MacDonald, Ferguson took two more medals in 1988 (gold and silver).
The way they won made for captivating viewing. There was Ferguson overhauling the opposition in the last 50m of the K-1 500m in Los Angeles, then combining with MacDonald to destroy the field in the K-2 500m.
The most thrilling race came four years later in Seoul, when Ferguson and MacDonald were caught and passed by the young Soviet crew in the latter stages of the K-2 500m, only to find something extra in the last few strokes and pip the Europeans by less than a fifth of a second.
The 1984 kayaking field was admittedly weakened by the Eastern Bloc boycott, but Ferguson is adamant that didn’t affect the results.
“We’d raced them all in Europe beforehand, the Russians and the East Germans, and we’d beaten them already,” he said in Our Olympic Century. “So we were quite confident we were going to win.”
Ferguson’s longevity was remarkable. He first went to the Olympics in 1976 as a 24 year-old, reaching the semifinals of the K-1 500m in Montreal.
Ferguson was one of only four New Zealand athletes to attend the 1980 Moscow Olympics (defying a government boycott) and finished eighth in the K-1 1000m final.
In Los Angeles, Ferguson, the pre-race favourite, won the K-1 500m with a strong finishing burst.
Ninety minutes later – after the emotion of victory and hearing God Defend New Zealand on the medal dais – he returned to the waters of Lake Casitas to win the K-2 500m alongside MacDonald, before being part of the K-4 1000m triumph the next day.
Ferguson was aged 36 in Seoul, but still good enough to claim gold and silver alongside MacDonald before his swansong in Barcelona, where he was eighth in the K-2 1000m final.
10 – Caroline Meyer and Georgina Earl
Gold: Rowing, double sculls, Athens 2004
Gold: Rowing, double sculls, Beijing, 2008
Caroline Meyer and Georgina Earl achieved New Zealand Olympic immortality by less than the length of this sentence.
On August 16, 2008, on Beijing’s Shunyi course, with Caroline in the stroke seat and Georgina commanding the bow, they delivered rowing’s triple double – twin sisters double sculling to victory at consecutive Games.
The only time the tandem – then operating under the household name of ‘Evers-Swindell’ – led was at the finish line. The 0.01s margin of victory was at the time the narrowest in Olympic history (more on that later).
They advanced from fourth at the 500m mark to second by the 1000m. From there they bored down on Germans Annekatrin Thiele and Christiane Huth in what coach Richard Tonks quipped was “the slowest overtaking move” he had witnessed.
“In the last 500m, with 60-70 strokes to the finish, Georgie was saying ‘go, go, go’,” Caroline says. “She was more aware of where the Germans were, so it was a matter of trusting her. I started thinking of all the training, all the miles and all the hard work with Richard over all those years.
“My gut feel was that we’d medalled [Britain finished third, 0.23s further back]. I was stoked to come ‘second’. We’d had our worst year in terms of results, so to be in medal contention was amazing.”
“We rowed through the Chinese and the British, which left Germany ahead on our right,” Georgina says. “I said to K [Caroline’s nickname] ‘we’re gaining’ and had a few cheeky looks in the final 500m.
“I had no idea of the result. The German girls were yelling and screaming with their arms in the air, but we were happy because we’d had an awesome race and didn’t care what colour of medal we’d won.
“We were catching our breath, and just happy the pain had stopped, when we heard a cheer from the grandstand. The big screen faced away from us and, after what felt like a couple of minutes, the umpire boat came over and said ‘congratulations New Zealand, you’ve won’. We said ‘are you sure?’ It was surreal. Deep down we knew we’d never experience that again.”
The twins captured the public imagination with their athleticism, symmetry and an intuition to thwart opposition.
However, their destiny was tracking differently in the Beijing lead-up. No one, bar perhaps those observing the prognostics in the Rowing New Zealand programme, could have predicted the result.
Eight weeks prior, at the World Cup in Lucerne, they failed to make the final. They finished last in their heat and the repechage, beaten by crews who hadn’t qualified for the Games. A sports psychologist was called in to repair their damaged mojo.
The 2004 victory at Athens was a doddle by comparison. The twins were favourites to become New Zealand’s first women rowing gold medallists on the back of two world championships. They beat Germans Britta Oppelt and Peggy Waleska by 0.99s, but led from the start.
9 – Danyon Loader
Gold: Swimming, 200m freestyle, Atlanta 1996
Gold: Swimming, 400m freestyle, Atlanta 1996
Silver: Swimming, 200m butterfly, Barcelona 1992
Danyon Loader’s performance in winning two gold medals at the Atlanta Games of 1996 is among the finest achievements by a New Zealand athlete.
He remains New Zealand’s only Olympic swimming champion — if you exclude the oddity of Malcolm Champion, the New Zealander in the Australasian quartet who won the 4 x 200m freestyle relay at the Stockholm Olympics in 1912.
Only five New Zealanders, including Champion, have won Olympic swimming medals.
Jean Stewart won bronze in the 100m backstroke at Helsinki in 1952; at Seoul in 1988 Paul Kingsman, from lane one, took the bronze with a late run in the 200m backstroke; and Anthony Mosse won the 200m butterfly bronze. Then there’s Loader, who won gold in both the 200m and 400m freestyle in Atlanta. When he arrived there, Loader was 21, far from an unknown quantity. Indeed he was at the peak of his athletic powers.
The 200m was first up. Loader always liked to warm up in lane five, to get a feel of being in the centre of events during the big races. He was in lane five for the 200m final.
Always in the frame with the leaders, he turned for home fractionally up on the Swede Anders Holmertz and pressed on to win in 1:47.63. Loader looked happy, but not fist-pumpingly ecstatic on the dais. Perhaps he knew there was more business to be ticked off. Maybe more a case that that wasn’t his personality.
In the 400m, Loader was in the lead turning into the final lap and simply extended that, holding off Briton Paul Palmer beside him, winning in 3:47.97. It was a more emphatic victory than the 200m and when he had the second gold medal placed around his neck there was no question Loader had been one of the stellar achievers in the Atlanta pool.
8 – Sir Mark Todd
Gold: Equestrian, Individual eventing, Los Angeles 1984
Gold: Equestrian,Individual eventing, Seoul 1988
Bronze: Equestrian,Team eventing, Seoul 1988
Bronze: Equestrian,Individual eventing, Sydney 2000
Bronze: Equestrian,Team eventing, London 2012
Mark Todd’s double Olympic glory in the 1980s is the stuff of legend: the tall, lean man who seemed set for a life in farming, with his interest in horses a sidebar to the real job, only to discover he had been blessed with wonderful gifts as a rider.
You don’t need to go far to find testament to his distinctive talents from his peers. You will find plenty of variations on “he could win Badminton on a cow/rocking horse/with his hands behind his back”.
In Los Angeles, 1984 riding Charisma, the horse he nicknamed Podge, Todd won New Zealand’s first equestrian Olympic medal, gold at that.
But it was a nerve-wracking business. Sitting second going into the showjumping, a clear round put the heat on American Karen Stives. Going clear would give Stives the gold, but on the penultimate obstacle, her horse Ben Arthur clipped a rail.
Todd had been in the tunnel after his ride and didn’t watch the early stage of Stives’ pressure-laden turn.
“At the time I was sucking on a cigarette. Halfway through, I wandered up to the entrance just in time to see her knock a rail down. I couldn’t quite believe it,” he told the Herald.
Todd clutched his head in disbelief. That night the celebrations got a touch out of hand.
“For some strange reason I ended up sticking my gold medal in a fridge for safe-keeping. It was still there in the morning, and none the worse for the experience.”
Seoul in 1988 was a significantly different Games, Todd on Charisma again won with a convincing performance and the second gold was locked up.
Todd took eight years out from riding, having won bronze at Sydney in 2000, but trained the New Zealand team competing in Athens in 2004 before being persuaded back to the sport, partly on a dare.
“I’d done everything I’d wanted to and felt it was a good time to have a change of career,” he said in 2016. “There was a bit of a dare to see if I could get back into top level competition to make the 2008 Games in Beijing, then I discovered I was really enjoying it.”
He then helped the New Zealand eventing team to a bronze in London for his fifth medal – 28 years after his first. Todd had a chance to make it a team gold in Rio, which would have been one of the great Olympic accomplishments, however his four dropped rails along with Jonelle Price’s two dropped rails, saw New Zealand slip from first to fourth.
Still, it doesn’t tarnish one of the great Olympic careers.
7 – Mahe Drysdale
Gold: Rowing, Single sculls, London 2012
Gold: Rowing, Single sculls, Rio de Janerio 2016
Bronze: Rowing, Single sculls, Beijing 2008
Drysdale’s career is one of pain and redemption, more pain and more glory.
In Beijing, an illness leading in meant he had expended his energy with 200m to go and couldn’t hold on. He admitted to no memory of the final strokes, after which he collapsed in the boat and was stretchered away.
Four years later Drysdale again vomited his way through the early morning. No illness like Beijing, just pure nerves. He hit the front in the third 500m and held off Czech Ondrej Synek.
“I decided to make a push in the third 500m then with 500m to go I would throw everything at it. By the last 200m I was counting the strokes, hoping the line would come up before Ondrej did,” he said.
In Rio, he became the 12th New Zealander to achieve gold medals at consecutive Games. But this time it was much closer. As close as you can get.
Drysdale won by less than the width of a bow ball over Croatian Damir Martin. Both posted identical times of six minutes 41.34s on Rio’s Rodrigo de Freitas lagoon.
The pair suffered an interminable wait for the confirmed result as officials pored over the photo finish.
The result reduced the previous closest Olympic margin of 0.01s, set by Kiwi double scullers Caroline Meyer and Georgina Earl over Germany at Beijing in 2008.
“I spent a lot of energy getting into the lead and I thought that was enough. But I knew I had to stack it in close to the line.
“Usually after I win I don’t feel the pain, but today… I felt the pain,” he said
Drysdale became New Zealand’s oldest Olympic champion at 37 years, eight months and 25 days, taking over from sailor Chris Timms who won in the Tornado at Los Angeles in 1984 aged 37 years four months and 15 days.
6 – Hamish Bond and Eric Murray
Gold: Rowing, Coxless pair, London 2012
Gold: Rowing, Coxless pair, Rio de Janerio 2016
In March 2009, while eating a tin of cold baked beans at Lake Karapiro – presumably for the energy value rather than the flavour – Hamish Bond was asked whether he had any trepidation about joining with Eric Murray. They faced what looked daunting opposition on paper, including British Olympic coxless four gold medallists Andrew Triggs Hodge and Peter Reed. Unblinking, Bond responded: “Hopefully we can give them a nudge … I’d be disappointed if we weren’t pushing them.”
So it has proved.
When they defended their Olympic coxless pair title on the Rodrigo de Freitas lagoon by 2.8s to remain unbeaten in eight seasons, they pulled off a feat ranked among the finest examples of New Zealand, let alone world, athletic supremacy.
They had gone 69 races at 24 international regattas without defeat in the class. No one has completed more in rowing’s history. In a discipline of such technical nous, theyovercame every conceivable doubt in every heat, semifinal and final on every visit to a race course.
Since their first win on June 19, 2009 until the Rio final, their final race together, they went 2610 days without defeat in tandem.
It’s a record which rivals American Edwin Moses’ 122-race stretch of nine years, nine months and nine days, in the 400m hurdles.
Their second gold win was the most defining of their careers.
With the clinical analysis of Lovelock at Berlin, the raw talent of Loader at Atlanta and the relentless determination of Ulmer in Athens, Bond and Murray dismantled the field.
Their London Games performance under coach Dick Tonks was so convincing it seemed a formality as they blitzed the Dorney Lake course to win by 4.46s. It was men versus buoys.
The defence of their title in 2016 under mentor Noel Donaldson was no different, as they cleared out to win with South Africa second and Italy third.
“It wasn’t our best racing in tricky conditions, but we couldn’t really exceed expectations because we’ve been winning the whole time,” Murray said after the second gold.
“Thank you to all those who recognised we had a scrap of talent and put in the hard yards with us,” Bond added.
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