NEW ZEALAND'S OLYMPIC WOMEN

Part 1.

It's the ultimate achievement for many athletes. An Olympic medal.

 

A lofty goal and possibly the greatest challenge imaginable for an alpine ski racer from New Zealand. There are plenty of Olympic sports where New Zealanders have stood on the podium and had that coveted medal slipped over their head. There have been past Olympic Games where Kiwis have been utterly dominant in a particular sporting event. No Winter Olympiad has ever been one of them, unfortunately.

 

Unlikely as it might seem New Zealand was the first Southern hemisphere nation to win a Winter Games medal of any colour. A young woman from Christchurch, Annelise Coberger, won the Silver medal in the alpine skiing Slalom event at the 1992 Albertville Olympic Games. This remains New Zealand's only Winter Olympic Games medal won by a woman or a man in any winter sport*.

 

The Olympic Women's Alpine Ski club is an exclusive one. Only 16 female athletes have ever represented New Zealand in Alpine Skiing at a Winter Games. Only three of those have competed at two games and only one has ever been a triple Olympian.

 

These ladies are a very special group and all deserve to be recognised, remembered and respected for their ski racing achievements. They are not the only women who have represented New Zealand at international ski race competitions but they are after all Olympians and that is possibly the most precious pinnacle in an athlete’s career.

 

Photo: Annette Johnson at the 1952 Oslo Winter Olympics.

1952 The first ever.

The NZ Women's Alpine Skiing Olympic story leading up to Annelise's extraordinary 1992 result in France began 40 years prior to her Olympic podium, when Annette Johnson and Jean Nelson packed their bags and skis and headed off to Norway to compete in the 1952 Oslo Winter Olympics. The young Elizabeth ll had only been Queen of England for one week when Annette raced in the two Alpine Skiing disciplines; Giant Slalom and Slalom. She placed 39th in GS but was did not finish her first run in the Slalom. Home nation Norway won the overall medal count. The hero of the games was 28 year old Norwegian truck driver Hjalmar Andersen who, urged on by his cheering countrymen, won three speed skating gold medals in three days and set Olympic records in two of the race.

 

Photo: Annette Johnson on the outside ski.

1960 Skiing’s youngest Olympian.

Muhammad Ali was only months away from winning boxing gold at the Rome summer Olympics and U2’s front man Bono was born.

New Zealand did not select a team to compete at the 1956 Winter Olympics in Italy but by 1960 we were again ready to send an Alpine Skiing only, team of two men and two women to Squaw Valley in the USA. The women, Trish Pike and Cecilia Womersley, skied in all 3 alpine events. Cecilia, 16 years old at the time, remains the youngest alpine skiing athlete ever to race for New Zealand at the Olympics. She also managed the best finish of both women skiing to a creditable 27th place in the GS event a brilliant result for such a young teenager in the rarefied atmosphere of the Olympics.

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 Photo: 1960 styles. Trish and Cecillia wear the best ever NZ team sweaters at an Olympics so far.

1968 French connection

The next Winter Olympics that a New Zealand team attended were the Grenoble games, the Vietnam War was in full roar, strikes and race riots rocked America and Martin Luther King would be assassinated in April in Memphis, Tennessee.

 

Olympic host city Grenoble, in France was a much more peaceful place to be. Especially if you were a hometown ski racer. The alpine events were dominated by French athletes; Jean-Claude Killy winning gold in every discipline and French woman Annie Famose taking out silver in GS, bronze in Slalom and she even managed a fifth in the Downhill. A 23 year old Queenstown girl, Anne Reid, raced in all three alpine disciplines and finished in every event. Margot Blakeley, who later went on to produce her own range of ski clothing, raced in the slalom but was unfortunately disqualified.

 

1976 Slalom in the seventies.

New Zealand women took a gap year for the games in Sapporo in Japan during 1972 but in 1976 while Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak were busy starting a small computer company called Apple another NZ teenager left home and made the trip to the winter games at Innsbruck, Austria. Eighteen year old Janet Wells finished in 41st place in the Giant Slalom. Her team mate Sue Gibson raced and finished in all 3 alpine disciplines and on the way smashed out a brilliant slalom finish.

 

She didn’t know it then but the twenty year old's 19th place would stand untouched as the best Olympic slalom finish by a New Zealand woman until Annelise's silver medal sixteen years later and today her finish remains the 5th best NZ Alpine skiing result ever at an Olympics.

 

1980 Downhill down under v Swiss speed.

The Lake Placid Winter Olympics in 1980 was the second time that 6 time overall World Cup champion Annemarie Moser-Proll had raced at the winter games. The Swiss ski racer that many still consider the greatest female skier of all time, at that stage in the last season of her career, won the Downhill gold. Hanni Wenzel, the third most successful female Olympic skier ever, won gold in both Slalom and GS.

 

What a year to pick as a Kiwi to race in alpine skiing at the Olympics. Anna Archibald grabbed the opportunity to represent New Zealand and the hard charging twenty year old from Christchurch managed a 26th place Downhill finish which still stands as the equal best finish position of any New Zealand Olympic Downhiller. Another young teenager, from the Canterbury high country, was representing New Zealand at Lake Placid. Fiona Johnson had some family history at the Olympics, her aunt was Annette Johnson (now Annette Acton-Adams) see above, the first ever Kiwi winter Olympian. Fi worked hard to be selected for the team and raced for her country in Slalom and GS.

 

Acutely aware of the challenges and sacrifices that Kiwi winter Olympic hopefuls must make, to be able to compete on the international race courses that lead to the ultimate start gate at an Olympic games. Fiona has gone on to raise funding and to support aspiring young New Zealand ski racers through her Snowvision Foundation.

 

An inspired and badly needed initiative that, much like New Zealand alpine ski racing itself, often goes unappreciated. 

 

1984 More speed from the sisters.

The US had boycotted the 1980 Moscow summer Olympics and the USSR was about to boycott the Los Angeles Olympics. Miami Vice was on television, US banks were collapsing, the Eighties were truly in full swing. Two 21 year old Kiwi girls arrived in Sarajevo for the 14th Winter Olympiad. Queenstown local Christine Grant came for the speed event and delivered a finish that equalled Anna Archibald's "best ever New Zealand Olympic downhill finish position for a man or woman". Kate Rattray from Christchurch raced in the GS and Downhill. She finished the downhill in 29th but a DNF in the second run of her GS race made her determined to try again.

 Photo: Kate Rattray on the move at Sarajevo in 1984

1988 Doubling down.

Kate arrived in Calgary for the winter games as the first New Zealand female Alpine double Olympian. She wasn't racing in downhill this time but she was competing in every other alpine discipline, including the inaugural Olympic Super G race. Kate had come ready to race and finished 28th out of a Super G field of 46, 21st from a Slalom start list of 57 athletes, unfortunately she did not finish the second run in the GS race. 

These are solid results from a strong and commited ski racer with a deep passion for her sport. Kate continued for many years to compete in various skiing events. 

 

To be continued.........

*(It is worth noting that in February 2016, Freestyle snowboarder Christy Prior and skier Josiah Wells both won Bronze medals at a Winter Olympic test event in Korea and in the same month Wanaka freestyle skiing prodigy Finn Bilious won a Silver and Bronze at the Lillehammer Youth Olympics. So other hopeful Winter Olympians might be getting closer to breaking your quarter century old record Annelise).