Possessing an indomitable spirit and never-say-die attitude Marise Chamberlain remains a trailblazing figure in the history of Kiwi women’s athletics. During a lengthy career she bettered or equalled eight world records/world best time from the 400m to the mile, she become her country’s first and still only female Olympic track medallist - her success paving the way for generations of female athletes to follow.
Born and raised the second eldest of four children in the Christchurch suburb of South Brighton in 1935, Marise showed her athletic potential from a young age. A primary school sprint champion she secured her first Canterbury title over 220yd aged 15. She also competed for a year for the Crichton Cobbers club but quit athletics aged 16.
Nonetheless, three weeks before her 18th birthday, she had a re-think after a work colleague, whom Marise had previously beaten on the running track, started training with Technical Athletic Club.
“I thought, well if she is going to run, then I am too,” she recalls.
It was there at the first day training at the track on Ensors Road in Opawa she met Latvian-born Valdy Briedis, her coach and mentor.
“I’d seen him once at Rugby Park (at an athletics meeting) and someone had said how good he was,” she recalls. “When I saw him that day I knew immediately he would be my coach. I approached him and said, ‘I don’t know whether you remember seeing me (run)?’. He replied, ‘yes, I know who you are.’ I then asked ‘would you please coach me?’ He looked at me with a big smile, shook my hand and said ‘certainly.’
Training under Valdy’s dictatorial coaching-style was far from easy for Marise. In the prime of her career, Marise would regularly clock up 100km a week. Energy-sapping runs up the Port Hills were common and training sessions, which were carried out every evening following her work as a full-time typist for a tyre company, would typically be three hours long in total.
“I believed everything he told me and I enjoyed some wonderful success with him but he was a very hard man,” recalls Marise of her coach who was brought up under the old Soviet coaching system “I must have had a million and one tears in my time with him. He was always growling but when it formed in my mind he was doing this to push me to be the very best I could, I could then take whatever he threw at me.
“We had a very regimented life under Valdy, but I wanted to be a top athlete and I was prepared to do whatever he asked in training. In today’s world I don’t think you would get athletes prepared to do that amount of work.”
Initially featuring as a 100yd and 220yd sprinter – the direction of her athletics career changed in 1957 after the international governing body declared women were eligible to run world records over the 400m distance. Having never previously been allowed to compete over distances longer than 220yd - the move opened up a new world of possibilities.
Valdy identified Marise’s potential over the longer distance and at the 1957 Canterbury Championships she recorded a time of 57.0 seconds to take a share of the world record with Australian Marlene Mathews.
“It was always a hard battle up at Rugby Park we’d face an easterly wind into the sea down the final 150m,” she adds,
The following year again at Rugby Park she chipped 0.2 from Australian Nancy Boyle’s world 440yd record mark to record 56.1 – not that the task was ever easy competing in New Zealand conditions.
“I often had limited competition and races were effectively time trials,” says Marise, who out of her own pocket paid for three sessions a week with a masseur throughout her career. “Also the tracks I was racing on were often dreadful with huge pot holes in them. Marlene Matthews (the Australian athlete and 1956 Olympic 100m and 200m and 400m world record holder) once told me, ‘ I don’t know how you can run in such conditions’.”
A rare international opportunity came in 1958 when she won selection in the 100yd and 220yd for New Zealand at the British and Empire Commonwealth Games in Cardiff. Events for women above such distances had not yet been included on the programme and the experience proved traumatic for the then 22-year-old athlete.
On the journey to Wales, the New Zealand team were forced to spend a week in India following a mechanical issue with the aeroplane. Marise along with many members of the Kiwi team became chronically sick and following her arrival in Wales, she was diagnosed with a form of cholera.
Determined to compete in Cardiff she rushed back to training but picked up a hamstring injury. An English physio ensured she made it to a start line, where she placed third in her 100yd heat in 11.4, reached the semi-finals of the 220yd and placed fourth for New Zealand in the women’s 4x110yd relay.
However, on her return home the illness and looking like “a bag of bones” on arrival she had to spend a lengthy period of recuperating.
The 1960 Rome Olympics included a women’s 800m but no 400m on the schedule, so Marise shifted her focus to the two-lap distance. She achieved the qualification mark for the 800m and was nominated for a place on the New Zealand team only to be controversially overlooked for final selection.
“I was bitterly disappointed,” she says of the selectors’ decision. “It broke my heart. I knew I would have been capable of making the final because Dixie Willis (the Australian) did and I’d competed against her. The toughest part looking back is that I should have competed in Rome and this would have given me much greater experience for Tokyo.”
She emerged in 1962 a much stronger athlete and in March made a quantum leap forward over the two-lap distance. Competing in Perth, Marise was up against Willis, the physically robust Australian. In a titanic scrap between the pair Willis ran 2:01.2 – to wipe a little over three seconds from the previous world record. The Kiwi finished just 0.2 adrift – to record the second fastest time in history.
“I didn’t really know how to run the 800m as most of my races in New Zealand had been time trials,” she explains. “Dixie went through the first lap in 59.4 and I thought we are running fast, I hope I can hang on. I was still with her at 200m to go. I got equal to her down the home straight but she was such a physically strong runner, I just couldn’t get ahead of her and she pulled away in the final few strides.”
Marise made the Rome Olympic selectors “eat their words” when she returned to Perth later that year to win an 880yd silver medal behind Willis at the British Empire and Commonwealth Games. The Kiwi then stayed on in Western Australia to finished her year on a high by setting world best times for the 1500m (4:19.0) and the mile (4:41.4).
“I remember Herb Elliott (the 1960 Olympic 1500m champion from Australia) said to me, ‘Marise, when I saw you running today I had to take my hat off, it looked so effortless. Prior to you running I was dead set against women running middle-distance but you changed my mind.”
Fighting against the prejudices of the time, Marise was slowly changing attitudes thanks to her pioneering efforts.
In 1963 the Cantabrian continued to impress. That year in Sydney she made a big breakthrough by defeating Willis for the first time over the two-lap distance. Meanwhile, she also ran a 400m lifetime best of 53.9 – a performance which ranked her eighth in the world that year.
Going into the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, Valdy and Marise faced a choice in which event they should target and they opted for the 800m – due to her superior international experience over the distance.
Yet since 1962 Marise had struggled with chronic bursitis in both ankles.
“Whenever I warmed up I just wanted to scream in pain,” she recalls. “I used to sleep with my feet out of the bed because I couldn’t bear my feet touching the sheets and I ran with the backs cut out of the back of the shoes to make running more bearable.”
Regular cortisone injections acted as a short-term relief before she set out for the biggest competition of her life in Tokyo.
The Cantabrian cruised through her heat, recording a time of 2:06.8 for second behind the pre-event favourite Maryvonne Dupureur of France.
Then in the semi-final she grabbed top spot to record a time of 2:04.6 “with the brakes on” before she took to the start-line for the final – the following day.
A restless sleeper at the best of times and playing the race through her head “101 times” that night, Marise did not get a wink of sleep and felt like a “dead duck” and bereft of energy on the day of the final.
“I was a total wreck and I wondered how I am going to be able to run the race,” she says.
Running the first 600m of the final in a daze, the inexperienced international was given a rude awakening to life at this level when down the back straight of the opening lap she was ruthlessly elbowed by the tall German Antje Gleichfeld.
“I was about to fall but the two English Ann’s (Ann Packer and Anne Smith) grabbed hold of my singlet and stopped me from falling,” she explains.
Going through the bell in sixth, Marise was well adrift of the pace set by Dupureur in 58.6 seconds. With 200m remaining the blonde-haired Kiwi still sat in sixth when she was suddenly sparked from her lethargy.
“I could hear the crowd shouting “black, black, black” which was for me in black singlet,” she recalls. “The fact that they were calling for me jolted me into life and I took off. I ran three wide around the final bend, which was mad and showed my inexperience. But the minute I took off, Ann Packer followed me. She later said in the press conference she knew she could beat me in the finishing straight because her 400m best was 52.2 (Packer had won 400m silver in Tokyo) and mine was 53.9.
“Lying second behind Dupureur entering the home straight I then saw Ann Packer go past me. In the final 50m I knew I couldn’t win gold or silver, I just have to hang on for third. I was grateful I did because I was dead on my feet. It was the wrong day for me (to produce my best) but I still got a result.”
Marise crossed the line in bronze in 2:02.8 – 1.7 seconds adrift of Packer, who set a world record time.
“During the medal ceremony everything caught up with me and I burst into tears on the medal dais,” she explains. “I thought of all that work, all the heel pain, the loneliness of training on my own. Ann touched me on the shoulder and said Lord Burghley was waiting to give me my medal. I said, “sorry” but he said “I don’t mind, take your time.”
After undergoing surgery in 1965 to fix the chronic bursitis injury she was advised by the surgeon to quit the sport after the 1966 British Empire and Commonwealth Games in Kingston, Jamaica.
Fitter than she was in the countdown to Tokyo, a strained Achilles in the countdown to the Games hampered her preparation which was then exacerbated in Kingston after a team member slipped on a boardwalk and dragged the unfortunate Marise down with her weakening the injury.
In excruciating pain she rang Valdy in a panic threatening to fly home but her long-time coach knew of the athlete’s incredible mental resilience and said “you’ll find a way.”
She did. Undergoing treatment from a Jamaican physio she eased through her 800m heats and into the final. Planning to sign off her career with a gold medal she suffered a racing tragedy when just four metres from the finish line and holding a seemingly insurmountable lead she collapsed to the ground after her Achilles gave way.
“I tried to increase the pace in the final 10m, having for once in my career not looked behind me down the home straight to check my position. Once I changed the rhythm my leg could not take it. I ended up walking across the line in sixth. I was shell-shocked and the whole stadium went silent.
“Returning home I hoped the plane would land in the Pacific because I felt like I’d let everyone down.”
Retiring at the age of 31, she later dabbled in coaching in Christchurch doing so for five years and also coached her daughter, Marissa Stephen, an Oceania 4x400m champion.
In 2011 her home in South Shore was irreplaceable damaged in the earthquake and her second husband, Lewis Schou, died in 2014.
“We lost everything in the earthquake, it affected everything including my husband’s health,” she explains. “But I’m a fighter, a Cantabrian and you just keep going. I will not let anything beat me. Life goes on, you can’t afford to feel sorry for yourself. You just have to pick yourself up and carry on.”
Today Marise, 84, lives just a block from where she grew up in South Brighton and enjoys her daily walks along the beach. Sometimes she reflects upon her athletics journey and assesses her time in the sport with immense pride and satisfaction.
“I took to athletics and found it wasn’t easy, but that did not deter me, I wanted to take it right to the finish,” she says. “I’m glad I completed that journey and experienced it, although it was far harder than I ever dreamed it would be.”
Marise was inducted into the New Zealand Sports Hall of Fame in 1995 and eight years later became a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit. A measure of the quality of her 800m personal best of 2:01.4 – set on a grass track - is it was only finally bettered by Toni Hodgkinson some 34 years later.