Plunge into the unknown
It was a spot that became increasingly contentious the longer the Melbourne Commonwealth Games went on. Never mind that many New Zealand competitors were producing personal bests – if it resulted in a fourth-placing then it was proof that athletes in this country had gone soft.
From our mortifying Minister for Sport and Recreation, Trevor Mallard through to past greats, editorial writers and talkback callers, everyone seems to feel personally let-down by those who came home without medals.
Taradale’s Jeanette Barker knows what it’s like to finish fourth at a Commonwealth Games. It was a feat she achieved in the women’s platform diving at Vancouver in 1954, to go along with fifth in the springboard event.
That was a marvellous effort then and it seems even more remarkable now, when Barker describes her experience.
She was one of only eight girls in the team and it was the first time she had been overseas, Barker remembers.
“We ﬂew out from Auckland and we definitely stopped at Hawaii and San Francisco. I’m not too sure if we stopped in Fiji – it’s so long ago now – but I can clearly remember stopping in San Francisco.”
In those days, Games athletes travelled in their uniform and she recalls taking off her shoes during the ﬂight and not being able to put them back on again because her feet were swollen.
“As I said, we were in uniform, which meant a skirt, blazer, pins, hat, gloves and stockings.
“It wasn’t like it is now, where they all travel in a tracksuit and that sort of thing. I actually got my very first tracksuit on that trip – it was ﬂannel. Nobody really wore tracksuits in those days.
“But I’ll never forget going to Wellington for the final fitting of my blazer and it was such a thrill to finally be presented with your blazer with the New Zealand fern on it. It was so rare to get something with the silver fern on it, because in those days they only went on the blazers of the New Zealand Olympic and Commonwealth Games teams, or the All Blacks, because they were the only teams that really went overseas.”
One thing she noticed about the recent Commonwealth Games was how relaxed the athletes looked at the opening and closing ceremonies. In her day, they all marched into the stadium in uniform, “whereas now they’ll all be smiling and waving flags and things”.
Back in 1954, the athletes’ village was at the University of British Columbia. It was two to a room and Jean Stewart, who became Jean Hurring, and Barker roomed together, with Kiwi athletics great Yvette Williams and another athlete next door.
“The big thing was the meals, which were so different and so yummy. It was a smorgasbord, which we’d never had in New Zealand. . .
“But in the village we had ice cream and beautiful pumpkin pies and lemon-meringue pies, and after the Games I stayed on and did a bit of travelling and I put on a stone eating those sorts of things.
“As for the competition itself, well, I was just amazed at some of the things the other divers did, which was far more difficult than anything we’d ever seen.”
Her opposition were pulling off dives even male Kiwi divers couldn’t dream of.
“You have to remember that we’d never been overseas before and we’d never seen any divers, aside from New Zealand ones.
“The first round was compulsory dives, so everyone was doing more or less the same thing.
But in the second round you did your most difficult dives and we just couldn’t compete.”
Heroine of women’s athletics
Any mention of Hawke’s Bay’s connection to the Commonwealth Games has to include Rona McCarthy.
Or Rona Tong, as she was then, when she won bronze in the women’s 80-yard hurdles at the then British Empire Games in Sydney.
In doing so, she became just the second New Zealand women to win an international athletics medal.
Perhaps better known for her deeds as a netball coach,or outdoor basketball as it was formerly known, McCarthy is a true Hawke’s bay treasure.
“You wouldn’t believe she will be 90 later this year,” said friend Jeanette Barker. “She’s as fit as a fiddle and still drives a car around. She coached the Hawke’s Bay basketball team for years and years, back in the days when we played in the first division.”
Photo caption –
GAMES RECALLED: Hawke’s Bay sporting identities, from left, Katie Portas, Jeanette Barker, Pat Weaver and Rona Tong share Commonwealth Games memories over tea in Napier.
HBTODAY PICTURE: STEVE MCNICHOL