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Barbara Kendall celebrated as one of the Olympic Golden Girls

by Richard Gladwell on 21 Nov 2010
The Golden Girls from left, Yvette Williams, Georgina and Caroline Evers-Swindell, and Barbara Kendall Richard Gladwell

Triple Olympic medallist, Barbara Kendall was one of six women honoured at a NZ Olympic Committee function on Thursday night at the Heritage Hotel.

The six women were all Gold medalists at Olympic Games, starting with Yvette Williams (1952, Long Jump), Barbara Kendall (1992, Windsurfer), Sarah Ulmer (2004, Track Cycling), Caroline and Georgina Evers-Swindell (2004 and 2008, Rowing) and Valerie Vili (2008, Shot Put).

Each addressed the dinner guests for about 20 minutes in an interview situation which recalled both their Olympic wins, but also set the context of that win in the training approach of their time, and how they became involved in their sport.

Barbara Kendall is the only New Zealand woman to have competed in five Olympics, winning Gold, Silver and Bronze medals and placing 5th and 6th in the other two regattas.

She recalled how she and her sister, Wendy, would team race against the boys in the early days to win the Auckland Starling Championships, with Wendy placing second. Her first world championships was in Scotland in 1984, at the age if 16 years old, while still at school. When she returned to school, because she was competing in a sport, sailing, that wasn't recognised as a sport, by her school, she had to do detentions to make up for the time she had missed! Her woes were compounded by having to sit University Entrance, because of the time away - and she left school at the end of that year.

In 1992, at her first Olympics, Kendall said she was fairly oblivious to the the Olympic atmosphere, but stuck to thinking about the series on a race by race basis, rather than the outcome. She won New Zealand's only Gold medal of those Olympics, but was one of four yachting medals won by New Zealanders at that regatta. Brother Bruce, a Gold and Bronze medalist from 1988 and 1984, just missed a silver or bronze medal through failure of an organiser supplied fin, later shown to have only six of the required 25 laminations - and was refused redress by the International Jury.

'It was the challenge of going back and doing it again that kept me going back for more Olympics,' Kendall said after being reminded that many having achieved a Gold medal most just give it away. 'Windsurfing for me was a sport that I was incredibly passionate about. It wasn't just a job. It ticked all the boxes of being soul-filling. It gave gave me the freedom to go out on the ocean and just blast away - sun shining and it gave the ultimate freedom of being able to clear your head and get away from the chaos around you. For me it was just the most amazing sport.'

'It was an amazing journey and learning experience,' she added.

However since the Beijing Olympics, Kendall said she had been of a windsurfer, just once and didn't miss the sport. 'It took me 24 years to get over it. But Beijing was very hard and it was like banging your head against a wall. And the love of it was gone.'

'It was so nice to be able to retire when you are on top of the sport and not forced into it by injury,' she added.

Since 'retiring' Barbara Kendall is now heavily involved in International Olympic Committee and related activities, including Athletes Commissions, work which takes her about 90 days per year.

The first Gold Medalist, Yvette Williams told her her training routine, as a strict amateur which involved training for three hours before work, another hour at lunchtime in The Domain across the road from her office job, and then another three to four hours training after work. Her nearest international competition was in Sydney, an eight hour flight away in a seaplane.

It was another 40 years before a woman won an Olympic Gold medal - achieved by Kendall in 1992. Then in 2004, there were two or rather three Gold medalists with Sarah Ulmer in track cycling and the Evers-Swindell twins in the double sculls event in rowing.

Ulmer told the audience of the day when her husband came home to tell her, unbeknown to Ulmer, that he had packed in his job that day and they were going to concentrate on the 2004 Olympics. That involved a complete strip down of the program and equipment and putting it all back together again to pick up the 15 second gap she was behind the top world cyclists at the time.

Still finishing each others sentences, the Evers-Swindells related how there was a pact between them that Georgina would not be able to begin rowing, which was Caroline's sport until she had been selected to represent New Zealand. That happened in a Junior Worlds, while Caroline was still at school, and Georgina took up the sport on the quiet. Still intrusion into Caroline's sport was not welcomed and they competed in separate boats until Caroline was told by the NZ Selectors that she had to row in the double scull with her sister, or she would not be selected in another event. She relented and rest is history.

Valerie Adams (then Vili) standing a statuesque 6ft 4' recalled that she had been that height since she was 12 years old, and the hard time she was given at school because she 'stood out'. At the Olympics and the build up competition she talked about competing against women with 'bowl haircuts' that looked like they had been given by their mothers. After a break in the 2007 World Championship and lying in second place, Vili was told by her coach to give one last throw in memory of her recently deceased father. She 'smashed the crap' out of the shot, moving into first place and taking the World title. In Beijing a year later, she won her Gold medal on her first throw of the final, setting a new Olympic record in the process. She did five throws all over 20 metres, only one other athlete did a throw over 20 metres in the Birdnest Stadium.

The feats of the six gold medalists are captured in a magnificent book 'Golden Girls'written by Margot Butcher and published by Harper Sports (

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