At 89, one of New Zealand’s truly great sporting icons, Yvette Corlett CNZM, MBE of Howick, passed away on Saturday, mourned by a nation who loved her as much for her gracious humility as her athletic prowess.
Dunedin-born and raised before moving to Auckland, Yvette (nee Williams) was New Zealand’s first woman Olympic champion, winning the long jump in Helsinki in 1952 after no jumping on her first two attempts and only qualifying for the final three on her nerve-racking third.
That 6.24m gold medal jump was an Olympic record and only 1cm short of the world record held by Dutch legend Fanny Blankers-Koen, a mark she bettered in Gisborne in 1954 with a 6.28m leap.
Had there been a pentahlon in those days, Yvette would most certainly have emulated her long jump feats for she was the most versatile woman athlete on the globe.
She had also won the long jump at the 1950 Commonwealth Empire Games and four years later won the shot put, discus and long jump in Vancouver, all with Games records.
In addition, she won 21 NZ titles in five different events, had broken national records 27 times and was named NZ Sportsperson of the Decade (1950-59).
It was a great decade for New Zealand with Sir Edmund Hillary conquering Mount Everest in 1953 and the All Blacks beating the 1956 Springboks on home soil.
Having married popular American “Buddy’ Corlett in 1954 and retiring two years later, she also represented New Zealand in basketball, as did Buddy, her 1966 Commonwealth Games decathlon champion brother, Roy, and her son Neville.
Buddy also represented New Zealand at softball.
Another son, Peter, was a NZ junior decathlon champion and record-holder who went on to represent Pakuranga and Auckland as a hard, uncompromising midfield back. Another son, Bruce, also played rugby for Pakuranga before ending his career in Wales while daughter Karen represented NZ as a gymnast.
Meanwhile, local sportsman and businessman Ron Johnson paid tribute to Yvette.
Ron, a local decathlete who won the NZ Masters Athlete of the Year Award 2018 and who has been competing in many similar events over the years, is in a similar age bracket “to the great Yvette Williams”.
Ron says he has always had a great admiration for Yvette as she has led the way as a terrific multi-disciplined athlete.
“She has been an ambassador to NZ athletics and an inspiration to both himself and other multi-athletes in the Masters age groups,” said Ron.
“She can never be replaced and will stand alone with both all of her NZ records and world class achievements that have put her on a pedestal in the history of NZ athletics.
“She was obviously gifted in the long jump but was able to adapt to many different events and excel to a world class level which is extremely hard to attain but proved it can be done.
“It will be a long time until another athlete that is so gifted and talented could perform at the highest level in so many different events.”
A death notice in the Herald says Yvette passed away peacefully at her home, surrounded by her family at 7pm, on Saturday. “A treasured wife of the late Buddy and cherished mother and mother in law of Neville and Tash, Peter and Robyn, Karen and Stewart, Bruce and Karen,” it says.
“Adored Nana of Shaun, Dana, Karlene, Nathan,and Jessica, and their partners. Loved “GG” to Kobi and Nina.
A gracious lady who we are so proud to call our Mum, and an inspiration to all.”
A celebration of Yvette’s life will be held at St Columba Presbyterian Church, 480 Ti Rakau Dr, Botany on Friday April 26 at 12 noon. It will be followed by a private interment.