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  Track & Field Athletics Australia    by Graham Thomas 

Profile - Shirley Strickland

 

Shirley Strickland memorabilia

  • Born 18 July 1925 - Northam, Western Australia
  • Australia/Western Australia
  • University/Applecross & Melville
  • Height - 5' 7 3/4
  • Weight - 9 stone, 7 stone

    Shirley Strickland is one of the world's greatest ever female athletes. My personal favourite of all the 'Golden Girls', the Western Australian achieved great success in a range of events over a lengthy career.

    Now known as Shirley de la Hunty, she still holds the record for total amount of Olympic medals won by any female athlete. And she could have won more.

Shirley Strickland, like so many of the greatest athletes, came from well-known athletic stock. Her father Dave won the 'Stawell Gift', Australia's premier professional sprint race in 1900, after being unable to compete in the 1900 Olympic Games due to lack of finances.  

Dave Strickland was undoubtably a fine runner.  His 'evens' performance at Stawell was considered to be as good as Stan Rowley's times which won the Australian amateur sprint titles that season.  Rowley went on to win two bronze medals in sprints at the 1900 Paris Olympics.

Twenty five years later, Shirley was born in the country town of Northam, Western Australia.  She grew up chasing rabbits and kangaroos with her brothers on the Strickland farm and hardly wore shoes until she was a teenager.  Playing with her brothers in the bushland helped her develop a good standard of fitness and she seemed naturally talented in many sports.  

At school she played hockey and always excelled when the annual school sports (athletics championships) were conducted, winning the school cup for outstanding athlete on four occasions and the cup for outstanding junior athlete on three occasions.  She was not often beaten but did lose a handicap or skipping race on occasion. In her final year at Northam, in 1942, she ran in perfect conditions to twice set a swift (record) time of 11.6.

Within a few months, Strickland had relocated to Perth to study at University and continued competing in tennis and hockey.  Because of World War II, there were few women's athletics events held in Perth and Strickland did not train too seriously for track and field.

Strickland concentrated on her studies and performed as well academically, as she had on the sporting field.  She had been inspired by a teacher who told her of the Ancient Greek ideal of perfection in mind and body.  Strickland graduated from University with a Bachelor of Science in 1945 and, in 1946, won honours with physics. 

Another leading university athlete at the time was the 1940 Australian 880y champion, Betty Judge. Judge helped coach Strickland to University Championship honours in the mid 1940s before former world professional sprint coach Austin Robertson took over.

In late 1946 interclub athletics competitions in Perth re-commenced and Shirley Strickland immediately made a name for herself. Running against both young challengers and pre-war veteran champions, Strickland was dominant in the sprints (from 75y to 440y) and hurdles in every competition. She also did well in the High Jump and even won state championship medals in the Shot Putt and Discus.

Strickland was Western Australia's biggest hope in the 1948 National titles and she achieved great success in those Sydney championships.  One the first day of competition, Strickland was just pipped by the NSW star Joyce King, in the 220y heat, when King set a national record of 24.9.

In the 100y final, held the next day, conditions were not considered conducive to fast times as the grass track was quite waterlogged.  Despite this, King and Strickland staged a fierce battle with King just being awarded the title - and an Australian record time of 11.0 - in a controversial finish.

Strickland, McKinnon & King - 1948 100y National Championship

Photo of the 1948 National 100y Final
Joyce King (right) beats Shirley Strickland (left)...or does she?

Many spectators thought that Strickland should have been awarded the race and the Western Australian later said she was stopped in the street by people in Sydney who said they could not believe she had not been awarded the title.

Two days later, Strickland won the 90y Hurdles in a scintillating time of 11.6 which smashed the Australian Record and was announced as a World Record time.  She also ran a top class 220y final, though Joyce King was again announced as the winner in another very close finish, and ran a leg of Western Australia's bronze-medal winning 4x110y relay team.

Chosen as Australia's number one ranked athlete for the 1948 Olympic Games, she was not considered a medal chance by commentators such as former Olympic Champion Harold Abrahams who said Strickland was 'not world class'.

In the 1948 Games Strickland competed in four events. She won bronze in the 100m and 80m Hurdles, was placed fourth in the 200m and won a silver medal as part of the Australian 4x100m relay team.

Harold Abrahams immediately admitted his mistake saying 'I was never more wrong. She is one of the finest athletes in the world'. Strickland, with Dutchwomen Fanny Blankers-Koen and France's Michelle Ostermayer, were the most successful athletes of the Games.

Still, Shirley commented that she was running on 90% enthusiasm and 10% technique. Further, she learned that success in athletics meant 'Dropping everything, having a coach and a father keeping you home at nights; telling you to do this and not to do that. You can't just eat what you like, and you must spend hours training, perfecting your starts and action, being criticised and urged and hoping and praying that you feel fit on the big day.'

In the 1948/49 season, she took a while to regain her top form and lost a couple of races to Verna Johnson and others in Perth. Strickland needed to be close to her best in February and March of 1949 as she had been invited to compete in a series of races against Fanny Blankers-Koen around Australia.

In these meetings Strickland and Blankers-Koen were both overshadowed by surprise newcomer Marjorie Jackson in the 100y and 100m. In the hurdles, Blankers-Koen beat Strickland on all occasions. In the last meet, in Perth, Strickland beat Blankers-Koen in the 100y but was herself pipped by Verna Johnston.

Strickland and Johnston both represented Australia at the 1950 Empire Games in Auckland. Strickland won three Gold and two silver medals at these Games - to become one of the stars of the track.

Great Rivals - Strickland and Marjorie Jackson         Great Rivals - Strickland and Norma Thrower

Later in 1950, Shirley married Laurence de la Hunty, a geologist who had been one of her students in physics lectures. The married couple agreed that Shirley should aim for success at the Helsinki Olympic Games before starting a family.

In the lead up to these Games, Strickland was able to face top competition in Australia and New Zealand, racing new world record holder Marjorie Jackson and top class sprinters such as Verna Johnston, Anne Shanley and Winsome Cripps.

Strickland and Jackson were the stars of the 1952 Olympic team each winning Gold medals and setting world records. They raced each other in the 100m with Jackson breaking the first of them in winning the event. Strickland was happy enough to take the bronze medal; it was the first time Australia had ever won two medals in the same athletics event.

Strickland was the favourite for the 80m Hurdles and her clash with defending champion Fanny Blankers-Koen had been considered a likely highlight of the Games. In the Helsinki competition, Strickland ran 11.0 in her heat, a wind-assisted 10.8 in the semi-final and 10.9 to win the final from Soviet athlete Maria Golubichnaya. Blankers-Koen, troubled by carbuncles, pulled up at the second hurdle and did not finish.

Although Australia was favourite for the 4x100m relay, a baton slip cost them the gold medal. Shirley and Marjorie were devastated that Johnston and Cripps would not take home a medal from the Games - as the quartet had to overcome selection and fundraising barriers to even make it to Helsinki.  The relay disaster was the only real disappointment for Strickland during her European campaign.  In a month of competition between 5 July and 4 August, she set world records at 80m Hurdles (twice), 4x110y relay (twice) and 4x100m.

On her return to Perth, Strickland had illness and injury worries. She had suffered losses at interclub to Verna Johnston, Pam Bryant and Pam Robertson and on 23 February the 'West Australian' announced "Shirley Strickland advised by doctor to withdraw from State Championships as she was ' on the verge of a breakdown with complete rest the only cure' A little later, Shirley and Laurence discovered that Shirley was pregnant and a son, Phillip, was born in September 1953. There were many who thought Shirley de la Hunty would now retire to home duties.

Shirley had other ideas and began training again in December 1953. Trying to gain selection in the 1954 Empire Games team, she became ill through the domestic season and was not at her best in the 1954 Australian Championships.

Only competing in the hurdles and relay in the 1954 national championships, Strickland did not finish the hurdles final after a mix-up at the start. As a consequence, she was not chosen in the Australian Empire Games team.

Determined to defend her hurdles championships, Strickland even offered to pay her own way - with some further support from the men's selectors - but the offer was refused.

There were many who said she was 'over the hill' and should retire gracefully but Shirley set her sights on the 1956 Olympic Games and in 1955 toured Europe. She competed in the World University Games in Poland and shocked the world by breaking Marjorie Jackson's world record for 100m, setting a time of 11.3 that was not beaten for six years. She also won the hurdles in fast time, and returned to Australia confident of her ability to win further international honours.

In the 1956 Australian titles Strickland ran second in the 100y, fourth in the 220y and won the 440y. She broke twice in the hurdles final (some said intentionally) and saw South Australian Norma Austin win the title. In the Olympic trials she did well enough to gain selection in the 100m, 80m Hurdles and 4x100m relay.

Though she was surprisingly eliminated in the heats of the 100m, she ran well to win heat, semi and final in the hurdles, breaking her Olympic record on each occasion. In the relay the Australian girls broke the World record in their heat and semi-final to see Strickland ending the games as the most decorated female Olympic athlete of all time.

In her career she also set eight Olympic records (five at 80mH and three at 4x100m), also a record. She was the first woman to ever defend an Olympic athletics championship and is still the only female to successfully defend an Olympic hurdles title.

Rewarded for her achievements with the Helms Trophy in 1955 and an MBE in 1957, Shirley found herself pregnant with her second child and temporarily retired again.

When not pregnant, Strickland continued to train and compete in Perth interclub races into the sixties. She also began to coach other young sprinters and pass on the benefits of her experience.

In 19560 the thirty four year old mother of three was was still fit enough to run 100y or 80m Hurdles in 10.9.  She won both WA State titles in 1960, beating Empire Games silver medallist Kaye Johnson in the 100y, and was given a huge ovation by the crowd.  

With the possibility of an unprecedented fourth Olympic selection in the Rome Games, Strickland trained seriously for the National Championships in Hobart that were to serve as the Olympic trials.  Though nobody dared to write the Olympic champion off in the lead-up to the Nationals, Strickland seemed to be past her best in the 80m Hurdles event. She reached the final, but could not win a medal, and her chance of Olympic selection was over.

Strickland had the consolation of Western Australia winning the 4x100m championship in an upset. It was a double success for Strickland; she had coached the team in addition to running in the event.  She applied for the job of manageress of the Australian women's team in Rome, but was beaten in a ballot by Mrs Doris Magee.

Two years later, in the 1962 Australian Championships at Adelaide, Strickland competed in her final National Championships. She ended her career with a victory, running the second leg of the relay for WA, 'making up ground' as the team defended it's championship from 1960.

In Australian Championships she won six golds (for 80m Hurdles and 440y) and six silver medals (over 100y and 220y) in individual events. This was a fine achievement, given that championships were only conducted every two years in the Strickland era.

Further, in Strickland's era, international women athletes were restricted to mainly sprint events.  Strickland won three Australian Championships over 440y and ran some fast times for the event during the 1950s, but this event was not contested internationally until 1964.  It is worth remembering that if the current range of events had been contested in Shirley Strickland's era she may well have achieved international honours at 400m, 400m Hurdles or even the Heptathlon.  Besides being one of the top sprinters and hurdlers in the world, Strickland was a competent high jumper and 800m runner.  She had also won state medals in shot and discus events, but rarely competed in such events later in her career.

Since the 1960s Shirley Strickland-de la Hunty has been active in many fields. Twice manageress of the Olympic athletics team, she has coached many international athletes - including former 200m world record-holder Margaret Burvill and the well-known Raelene Boye.  Mrs de la Hunty has also featured on many TV shows including 'This is Your Life', 'Australian Story' as well as providing Olympic commentary as one of Channel Seven's 'Legends'. Shirley has also been active in politics; standing as a candidate for the Australian Democrats and being a spokesperson for environmental groups.

I spoke with Mrs De la Hunty in the Sydney Olympic stadium in March 2000, six months before she would make history as one of the Australian Golden Girls carrying the Olympic torch on its' final lap around the Stadium prior to Cathy Freeman's lighting of the unique Australian Olympic flame.

She said she enjoys every one of the National Championships she has attended (I think she has only missed one or two since her first in 1948); not just the efforts of the 'stars' but seeing the improvement of younger athletes. Indeed, she still coaches many young athletes in Perth and was rumoured to be making a 'comeback' to competition at the age of 76 for the 2001 Masters Games in Brisbane.

Earlier in 2001, Shirley had again attracted media attention by auctioning all her sporting memorabilia including her Olympic Gold medals. She was criticised by some for doing this but asserted she had a right to do so and the income generated would help pay for her grandchildren's education and allow a sizeable donation to assist in retaining old growth forests from developers.  Her memorabilia was eventually acquired, for the MCG Museum in Melbourne, by a group of anonymous businessmen who shared Shirley's wish that the memorabilia would stay in Australia.

In 1956 Strickland was rated as Australia's greatest ever female athlete. Nearly fifty years later it is likely she still holds this title. But Shirley Strickland-de la Hunty is not just an outstanding Australian athlete, she is an outstanding Australian.


PROGRESSION					PERSONAL BESTS

Year    100y	100m	220y	440y	80H	Event	Best	Year
1938    12.8					75y	 8.2	1954
1939	12.4					100y	10.6	1956
1940	12.2					100m	11.3	1955
1941	12.8					200m	
1942	11.6					220y	24.3	1952
>>>						440y	56.9	1956
1946	11.2w?		26.9	64.0	12.5y	880y  2-32.4	1953
1947	11.1		25.8	60.7		80mH	10.7	1956
1948	11.0	12.2	24.9e		11.3	90yH	11.6	1948
1949	11.1w?		25.5		11.6e	HJ	 1.48	1951
1950	10.9		24.5	57.4	11.3	SP	 8.34	1947
1951	10.8	11.9	24.8	57.9	11.2	DIS	26.00	1947
1952	10.8	11.5*	24.3	59.4	10.9	
1953						
1954	11.1		25.3		11.5
1955	10.7	11.3	24.3	58.4	11.0
1956	10.6	11.6	24.3	56.9	10.7

* one watch only

INTERNATIONAL HONOURS		NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIPS

OLYMPIC GAMES			80m Hurdles	1948	1950	1952
				440y		1950	1952	1956
GOLD	1952	80m Hurdles	4x110y		1960	1962
	1956	80m Hurdles
	1956	4x100m Relay
SILVER	1948	4x100m Relay
BRONZE	1948	100m
	1948	200m* (unofficial)
	1948	80m Hurdles
	1952	100m

COMMONWEALTH GAMES

GOLD	1950	80m Hurdles
	1950	440y Relay
	1950	660y Relay
SILVER	1950	100y
	1950	100y

WORLD UNIVERSITY GAMES

GOLD	1955	100m
	1955	80m Hurdles
BRONZE	1955	200m
WORLD RECORDS

4x110y		46.9	1	London		05 Jul 1952
		Strickland, Johnston, Cripps, Jackson
80m Hurdles	11.0	1h	Helsinki		23 Jul 1952
80m Hurdles	10.9	1f	Helsinki		24 Jul 1952
		11.03	1f	Helsinki		24 Jul 1952 (auto)
4x100m		46.1	1h	Helsinki		26 Jul 1952
		Strickland, Johnston, Cripps, Jackson
		46.22	1h	Helsinki		26 Jul 1952 (auto)
		Strickland, Johnston, Cripps, Jackson
4x110y		46.3	1	London		04 Aug 1952
		Strickland, Johnston, Cripps, Jackson
100m		11.3	1	Warsaw		04 Aug 1955
80m Hurdles	11.02	1h	Melbourne	27 Nov 1956 (auto)
80m Hurdles	10.89	1s	Melbourne	27 Nov 1956 (auto)
4x100m		44.9	1h	Melbourne	01 Dec 1956
		Strickland, Croker, Mellor, Cuthbert
4x100m		45.00	1h	Melbourne	01 Dec 1956 (auto)
		Strickland, Croker, Mellor, Cuthbert
4x100m		44.5	1f	Melbourne	01 Dec 1956
		Strickland, Croker, Mellor, Cuthbert
4x100m		44.65	1f	Melbourne	01 Dec 1956 (auto)
		Strickland, Croker, Mellor, Cuthbert
4x110y		45.6	1	Sydney		05 Dec 1956
		Strickland, Croker, Mellor, Cuthbert

Auto times included above were later considered unofficial world bests.

An unofficial, non-profit, just-for-fun, page but 1995-2003 by Graham Thomas

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