Owairaka Amateur Athletics Club celebrated the club's 70th anniversary at the weekend. The club was founded in modest circumstances but within a generation would lead the world in middle and long distance running.
The Owairaka story began in 1943 when a 17 year old, Rona Girbin (nee Murphy), was being trained by her uncle at Anderson Park in Mount Albert. Local children approached and asked if they could have a race.
That uncle was Stewart Billman (Athletics Auckland secretary 1944-51 and president 1958-59) and he asked the children to return at the weekend with their parents’ names and addresses and he would organise races. Billman contacted the parents with a view to forming a club to provide athletics for the local youth and so, on 21st September 1943, Owairaka Amateur Athletics Club came into existence. Rona Girbin, now 87 was guest of honour at the celebrations held over the past weekend.
Within seven years Arthur Lydiard had joined the club and founded the club’s harrier section with himself as coach and Don Bergin as the first Harrier Club Captain. This would prove the catalyst for a revolution in middle and long distance running a decade later.
Later that year, the club enjoyed its first success in international competition when Arthur Lydiard and Noelene Swinton competed at the 1950 Empire Games. Swinton won bronze in the women’s high jump. This began a trend of Owairaka athletes representing New Zealand in senior competition for the next fifty-five years.
Murray Halberg became the Club’s first Olympian, when he competed in the 1500 metres at the 1956 Games in Melbourne.
In Cardiff 1958 Halberg won the three miles and Ray Puckett competed in the six miles and marathon.
The 1960 Rome Olympics marked the first of four golden occasions for Owairaka athletes on the Olympic stage. There were four athletes at the 1960 Games – Halberg, Puckett, Jeff Julian and Peter Snell. On one golden afternoon, Snell, in the 800 metres, and, an hour later, Halberg in the 5000 metres won Olympic titles. Puckett and Julian ran the Marathon. In 1962 athletes competed with success at the Perth British Empire Games. This time represented by Halberg, Snell and Julian, with Snell winning the 880 yards and the mile and Halberg retaining his three mile title.
In Tokyo 1964, the Club enjoyed another Olympic golden moment. Represented again by the four athletes who had competed in Rome (Halberg, Snell, Julian and Puckett) they were joined by Arthur Lydiard as the Athletics Coach. Snell repeated his 800 metres success from four years earlier and added the 1500 metres to his Olympic haul. There was only one representative in each of the 1966 Kingston Commonwealth Games and the 1968 Mexico Olympics. Julian finished fifth in the marathon in Kingston and Rex Maddaford ran in the 5000m and 10,000m finals in Mexico.
Dave Sirl was the third New Zealand athlete to finish as the New Zealand team won the world cross country team title in 1975.
In 1977 Owairaka won the inaugural New Zealand road relay title by winning the Takahe – Akaroa Relay. Kevin Ryan finished fifth in the marathon at the 1982 Brisbane Commonwealth Games. Owairaka women won the 1985 national road relay title for the first time at the Takahe – Akaroa relay and in 1997 came another golden moment when Beatrice Faumuina won New Zealand’s first individual World Athletic Championship title, in the discus in Athens.