Olympians look back 50 years

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While the PyeongChang Winter Olympics have been top of mind for winter sports fans, Kiwi team members from 50 years ago have been holding a reunion in Queenstown. New Zealand’s surviving Grenoble Olympians share memories with Philip Chandler

In early 1968, Keith Holyoake was the New Zealand prime minister, Lyndon Johnson was the United States’ president and Charles de Gaulle was the French president.

37 teams attending the Winter Olympics took De Gaulle’s salute as they marched past him at the opening ceremony.

Among them were NZ’s seven athletes, six of whom were in Queenstown this week for a 50th reunion.

Tom Huppert, of Wellington, the team’s flag-bearer, says “we had to do an ‘eyes right’ for De Gaulle”.

“I reckon it’s hilarious.”

Team-mate Mike Dennis, who lives in Australia, says his most lasting memory was the music as the team walked into Stade de Glace.

“It was just full surround – it was surreal, really.”

Former Queenstowner Mo Gardner says walking into the stadium, “shoulders back”, is his lasting memory, too, “and just feeling so proud to be there as a NZer, representing my country”.

Also at this week’s reunion were organiser and part-time Queenstowner Margot Blakely, born-and-bred local Anne Picher (nee Reid), who now lives in Quebec, Canada, and Marlborough Sounds-based Chris Womersley.

The other team member, Robert Palmer, was killed in a plane crash not many years after the Olympics.

The former Olympians, who dusted off their official jackets, still rave about their experiences representing NZ. The team, Picher recalls, spent about a month training beforehand in Switzerland.

“They had arranged a coach from Switzerland, and we went and stayed in his village and then he came to the Olympics with us.”

Picher, who learnt to ski on Queenstown’s Coronet Peak, was the best-performing Kiwi, coming 30th in the slalom and 21st overall.

Womersley: “We still had to be amateurs in those days, but most of the top Europeans were earning like $50,000 a year and they had all their expenses paid.

“We were amateurs in a professional game so there’s no way you could compete.”

Womersley couldn’t compete, anyway, because he got injured in Switzerland about two weeks before the Games.

It did, however, allow him to watch Frenchman Jean-Claude Killy win all three men’s events, the last only after Austrian Karl Schranz was controversially disqualified.

Huppert, who 38 years later was chef de mission for the NZ team in Torino, Italy, says “you gave it your best shot”.

“In the giant slalom, I fell at the last gate.

“I looked across the finish and never made it – I did on my back.”

Gardner, however, boasts he had the most spectacular crash in his downhill, which even featured in a documentary on the Games.

“There was a big bump halfway down.

“You train for it several days beforehand. and I had it nailed, every time.

“But in the race I was going to win, it was all or nothing, do or die, and I died.”

Picher pipes up: “You should have got a medal for that.”

Gardner says when he arrived at “the ripe old age of 22”, he realised he had “a worn-out pair of skis, arse out the back of my strides, and all my friends had smart cars, rifles and girlfriends”.

“I was flat broke but I had a lot of memories.”

Blakely, whose father Stan managed the team, was only 17 at Grenoble.

“I was very pleased to be part of a big team because it was actually overwhelming.

“I had no idea as a young girl how it would help me through life, because the minute people know you’re an Olympian, the respect is immediate.”

She can only marvel at today’s Kiwi Olympians – “it’s so much more professional”.

“It’s fantastic these kids [Wanaka’s Zoe Sadowski-Synnott and Nico Porteous] won a couple of medals [at last month’s Olympics],” Huppert adds.

“And at 16 years old – I was 25.”scoop@scene.co.nz