During a lengthy and medal-laden career spanning four decades, Val Young is a New Zealand throwing icon thanks to her consistency and remarkable longevity on both the domestic and international stage.
A winner of a record-breaking 37 New Zealand titles, the Cantabrian also snared five Commonwealth Games gold medals (three shot and two discus) and placed fourth on two occasions and fifth in the shot in her three Olympic appearances.
Born and raised the eldest of six children on a farm in Ashburton, Val was introduced to athletics shortly after leaving home to live in Christchurch as a boarder at Christchurch Technical College.
“I started setting Canterbury records (in the throws) from quite early on and all it developed from there,” adds Val, whose maiden name was Sloper.
Later joining the Christchurch Technical Club she was to come under the guidance of the influential Latvian-born coach, Valdy Briedis, who helped steer her into a world-class performer.
“I went into the athletics world with this strange man (Valdy) with a funny (Latvian) accent,” she explains. “He has a hard man but I just accepted it. I didn’t see my parents very often because I was a boarder and Valdy became a father-figure. He was quite dominant but I figured whatever he said, went.”
Valdy was a pioneering coaching figure in New Zealand, and introduced training methods he had learned under the Soviet system such as weight training and gym exercises.
“He used to bring a German athletics magazine over from Europe called Leichtathletik, which introduced me to lots of other throwers from around the world like Parry O’Brien, the US shot putter,” recalls Val. “I remember the club had a trolley in the tool shed where we would keep all of our equipment. Valdy said that would be really good for weight training, and we ended up doing arm presses with the wheels of the trolley! We all just really trusted in his techniques. A big group of us followed his ways.”
Under Valdy’s guidance she quickly improved. In the summer of 1956 she landed shot put gold at the New Zealand Championships to snag the first of her staggering 37 national titles and later that year she won selection to compete in the shot at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics.
“If my first time out of New Zealand and to experience that at an Olympic Games was mind-boggling, really,” adds Val, who was aged just 19 at the time. “We enjoyed a togetherness as a team and the amazing dining area in the (Athletes’) Village was mind-blowing. Seeing athletes from different sports such as weightlifters and wrestlers and even observing what your own team members did was fascinating.”
Val performed with distinction on her Olympic debut placing fifth with a best of 15.34m just 27cm behind Marianne Werner of Germany as the Soviet Union – led by Tamara Tyshkevich - secured a one-two.
The Kiwi, however, set high standards. “Who is ever satisfied with the Olympics unless you win a medal? But it was nice to be a part of the experience, and I was very young.”
By the time of the 1958 British Empire and Commonwealth Games in Cardiff she emerged a stronger athlete more equipped to perform well on the international stage.
Completing successive national doubles in the shot and discus in 1957 and 1958, Val embarked on the long trip to Wales confident of a strong showing.
“I was top of the Commonwealth rankings and that put more pressure on me,” she says. “I always remember Valdy used to send little notes to me offering technical advice. But on this occasion he wrote a little card to me saying “remember Geordie.” Geordie was a movie out at the time about a Scottish hammer thrower who had won the Olympic title with his last throw.”
Val became quite sick on the long journey to Cardiff but claimed victory in the shot by more than a metre from England’s Suzanne Allday with a best of 15.54m. However, Allday prevailed in the discus with Val in bronze one place behind her countrywoman Jennifer Thompson.
“I was skinny back then and I probably looked more like a high jumper than a thrower,” she explains. “I was disappointed with my performance in the discus, although I was pleased for Jennifer in silver.”
Striking gold in the shot was a big boost for her confidence and she returned back to New Zealand with renewed enthusiasm on the road to the 1960 Rome Olympics.
Training after work every day – she worked as an office worker for a footwear company – involved a mix of light jogging, exercises, throws, sprint work and weight training. During the winter she hurled the shot and discus by the light of Valdy’s lantern. Every Tuesday they would train indoors at the Christchurch Technical Memorial Hall. Training would be strict and regimented but with the goal of preparing her to be the best in the world.
By the time of the Rome Olympics she felt ready to strike for a medal. She qualified for the final with the second best throw of 16.07m however competing on the same session as her fellow Kiwis Peter Snell and Murray Halberg, who struck gold in the men’s 800m and men’s 5000m in one unforgettable hour, Val was somewhat overshadowed by the golden pair.
With the shot final located on the inside of the final bend leading into the home straight, Val became caught up in the emotion of Peter and Murray’s success.
“If you look at the film of Murray’s race you can see a woman jumping up and down on the in-field in a black tracksuit, and that is me,” she explains. “I think I probably did lose a little bit of focus.”
Lying third with a best effort of 16.39m going into the final round Val looked good for a medal. However, Earlene Brown of America, who was struggling to concentrate with the noise generated by the crowd during the 5000m, opted to delay her throw.
“I don’t whether she asked the officials or not, she was in the circle ready to throw before moving out of the circle,” recalls Val. “She waited until the 5000m final was complete and when she finally threw she did the job.”
Brown had hurled the shot out to 16.42m with her final effort – relegating Val into fourth by an agonising 3cm.
“I was very disappointed, “she recalls. “Everyone talks about the golden hour of Snell and Halberg and in some ways I was the unseen victim. That’s life, though, you win some you lose some.”
After marrying husband, Ross, in 1961, she quit her job. This gave her more energy to focus on training at the 1962 British Empire and Commonwealth Games in Perth she enjoyed one of the best competitions of her career by completing the shot (15.23m) and discus (50.20m) double.
Approaching the 1964 Tokyo Olympics in the form of her life, she was again optimistic of a string showing. Val delivered on her promise by setting a national record of 17.26m, which was to last 38 years until Valerie Adams surpassed it in 2002. Unfortunately, however, for the second successive Olympic Games the Cantabrian placed fourth – on this occasion finishing just 19cm behind the bronze medallist Galina Zybina of the Soviet Union.
Zybina’s fellow Soviet Tamara Press had defended the title with a mighty hurl of 18.14m but following the introduction of sex tests shortly after the Games, Press’ career came to a sudden halt. Val had found the deep voices of some of her rivals perplexing but refuses to be bitter by the Soviet and East German dominance of the shot and some of the subsequently discovered illegal practises of their athletes.
“That’s just life,” she says. “It is not something I think about very often.”
Hoping to start a family after Tokyo she took to combining athletics with playing representative basketball for Canterbury.
However, after struggling to initially become pregnant, Val decided after husband, Ross, went to the 1966 British Empire and Commonwealth Games in Kingston, Jamaica as a timekeeper, to also compete.
It proved a wise decision. Val retained both her discus and shot crown. Winning the former by just over half a metre from Australia’s Jean Roberts and repelling the powerful challenge of Northern Ireland’s Mary Peters to win the shot by 21cm with a best of 16.50m.
“I remember in a warm up competition, Mary had finished more than a metre ahead of me, she was determined to do well and we had a battle to the end,” explains Val. “She had her coach in the stands, back in the days when the coach was not allowed to communicate with the athlete. I remember during the competition trying to stand between her and her coach (to stop them speaking).”
Val gave birth to three daughters between 1967 and 1970 but re-started training with the lure of competing in her home city of Christchurch for the 1974 Commonwealth Games.
Inside the Queen Elizabeth II Park, the then 36-year-old won silver with a best of 15.29m to snag her seventh Commonwealth medal.
“It was a surreal experience,” she recalls. “It was great to compete at home.”
Val continued to compete domestically and claimed her 37th and final national title in the discus in 1982 at the age of 44. She later competed in masters competitions and also served as athletics team manager for the women at both the 1976 and 1984 Olympic Games.
She was awarded an OBE in 1987.
Now aged 82 and living in a home close to Nga Puna Wai - the new athletics facility in Christchurch which staged the 2019 New Zealand Track and Field Championships – with Ross, her husband of 58 years, she still keeps a keen eye on the athletics scene. An enthusiastic gardener with four grandchildren, Val looks back fondly on her time in the sport which gave her so much.
Author: Steve Landells