Hurdler from the cutting edge
WHEN hurdler Rona McCarthy (nee Tong) returned home from winning a bronze medal in the 1938 British Empire Games in Sydney there was no grand welcoming party.
There was no street parade either, and there were definitely no sponsorship deal or rewards such as a car.
Instead, Mrs McCarthy, of Hastings, turned her energies to trying to promote sport at Hawke’s Bay schools.
At last weekend’s two street parades for gold-medal-winning rowers Georgina and Caroline Evers-Swindell in Hawke’s Bay, which attracted thousands, Mrs McCarthy, 88, saw first-hand how much times had changed.
She said the amount of money around for athletes today was shocking but showed how advanced times were.
“With all the equipment they have got to get you fit today it would be quicker to get fit than it was in our day – where we got fit was on the track.”
Women were first allowed to compete at the Empire Games – later to become the Commonwealth Games – in 1934.
When Mrs McCarthy decided to focus on hurdling as a sport after a spell as a runner in the early 1930s, her father, Oswald helped her out – even making some hurdles for her to practise with.
And before leaving with the New Zealand team on the ship Wanganella bound for Sydney in 1938, she had to endure a pressure rarely experienced by sportswomen today.
She had read a letter by a doctor printed in a newspaper about her selection in the team, saying that women should not be hurdling. +
Also, her allocated New Zealand team singlet was designed for a man and had to be altered to fit her.
With no coach, she headed off to represent her country, packing in a small suitcase her running gear and a kitchen knife – which she had to use to cut out a hole on the grass athletics track to create a starting box.
“It had to be straight and curve around, the straight piece is where you push off.”
After her races, she had to return to the start to make sure the dug-out dirt was put back in place.
It was mind-boggling how different it was today for elite sportspeople, she said.
“We were given a blazer, a frock and a hat and that was it.”
Mrs McCarthy, who also played netball for New Zealand, said seeing the success of the twins from Hawke’s Bay had also brought back a lot of good memories, saying her own experience was a lifetime one. “I know all the hard work they had put into their training.”
She rode a bike to get to training at a sports ground in Hastings after work, and was helped to hone her hurdling skills by another champion hurdler, Frank Sharpley.
“It was through the co-operation of both of us that we really got to the games.”
Her parents also played a crucial part, providing funds so she could compete at athletic meets.
In her day, competitors had to pay a shilling for each race they entered on top of a gate fee.
Of her 80-metre 11.9sec hurdling achievement, Mrs McCarthy said she was just thrilled to have won a medal. “I was not really into records, I was content to run and do my best.
“Standing on the dais is something I will never forget.”
Photo caption –
1938 attire Rona in her Empire Games outfit – blazer, frock and hat.
Games essentials: Rona McCarthy with her bronze medal, suitcase and handy kitchen knife.
Picture: BILL KEARNS