Owairaka Amateur Athletics 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 young girl, Rona 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 Stu Billman 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, in September 1943, Owairaka Amateur Athletics Club came into existence. Bert Payne became the first Club Captain.
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 with the athletics held at Eden Park. 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.
Within three years Owairaka had established itself as the leading harrier club in the Auckland province winning the Senior Team’s Title at the Auckland Cross Country Championships in 1953.
The following year Owairaka again had two athletes competing at an Empire Games when Swinton was joined at the 1954 Vancouver Games time by Murray Halberg who finished fifth in the mile.
Two years on and Halberg became Owairaka’s first Olympian, when he competed in the 1500 metres at the 1956 Games in Melbourne.
In Cardiff 1958 Owairaka won their first Gold Medal in international competition. Halberg, this time accompanied by Ray Puckett, lined-up at the Empire Games where Halberg won the Three Miles and Puckett competed in the Six Miles and Marathon.
In that same year Owairaka became an Incorporated Society.
The 1960 Rome Olympics marked the first of four Golden Occasions for Owairaka Athletes on the Olympic stage.
Owairaka was represented by four athletes at these Games – Halberg, Puckett, Jeff Julian and Peter Snell. On one Golden Afternoon, Snell, in the 800 metres, and, an hour later, Halberg in the5000 metres won Olympic Titles. Puckett and Julian ran the Marathon.
This success would, indirectly, set in motion the development of New Zealand’s first all-weather athletics track, The Lovelock Track, in Mount Roskill. Opened on 15 April 1961, the track, in Sandringham Road Extension, became Owairaka’s home to the current day. Five world records have been set on the track.
From this base, Owairaka began its tradition of organising major marathon events. Initially with the McReady Marathon in 1962.
In that same year Owairaka 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, Owairaka 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.
The following year, New Zealand entered a team in the World Cross Country Championships in which Julian finished sixth. Only three other New Zealanders ever finished higher in this event.
Owairaka had 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. Julian’s non selection in the Olympic Team caused outrage at the time.
In 1969 the Owairaka Men’s Road Relay Team won the Takahe – Akaroa Relay for the first time, the first of three victories when the relay was held as an event open to clubs outside Canterbury. At the World Cross Country Championships that year Maddaford led the New Zealand team to a fourth-place finish.
Later that year new clubrooms were opened and became the club’s base for the next 40 years.
Into the 1970’s and Owairaka athletes continued to represent New Zealand at the highest level.
Julian, again, in the marathon at the 1970 Edinburgh Commonwealth Games, Martin Simmons at the World Cross Country Championships, Kevin Ryan on the track and in Cross Country.
In 1975 Owairaka enjoyed another Golden Moment when Dave Sirl was the third New Zealand athlete to finish as the New Zealand Team won the World Cross Country Team Title for the first and only time.
Owairaka was again represented at the Olympics in 1976 in Montreal with Kevin Ryan in the marathon.
In 1977 Owairaka won the inaugural New Zealand Road Relay Title in winning a third Takahe – Akaroa Relay. Elsewhere, an Owairaka Women’s Team won the Palmerston North Relay, laying the foundation for more than a decade of domination by Owairaka’s female athletes.
Later in 1977, Owairaka organised the first Choysa International Marathon in downtown Auckland, the forerunner of the current Auckland International Marathon.
A year later Owairaka organised the Winstone Peoples Marathon, in its first year called the Delegat’s Peoples marathon, in Manukau. This marathon and supporting events continued for a decade.
Ryan again carried the Owairaka flag in being selected for the 1980 Moscow Olympics but, sadly, never had the chance to compete at the boycott-hit Games. Two years later he finished fifth at the 1982 Brisbane Commonwealth Games.
At the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, Owairaka stalwart Arch Jelley was the team’s Athletics Coach.
A year later Owairaka Women won the National Road Relay Title for the first time again at the Takahe – Akaroa Relay as their dominance continued.
In 1987 Owairaka’s Hazel Stewart competed in the marathon in the World Athletics Championships in Rome.
A year later at the Seoul Olympics, Christine Pfitzinger carried the Owairaka flag when she ran in the 3000m.
That bold showing by Owairaka’s women continued into the 1990s when they dominated relay running throughout the country.
The club celebrated its 50th Anniversary in June 1994 as two Owairaka women prepared for the Victoria Commonwealth Games in Canada where Nyla Carroll finished fifth in the marathon and Beatrice Faumuina second in the discus.
Two years later and the same duo represent the club at the Atlanta Olympics with Carroll this time running the 10,000m.
In 1997 came another Owairaka Golden Moment when Faumuina won New Zealand’s first individual World Athletic Championship title, in the discus in Athens.
Back home and a year on, club officials proposed that the “Senior Section” of the club be merged with another club.
What was left behind at that time were a group of social members who assumed responsibility for Owairaka’s Clubrooms and a Children’s Athletics Section. Over the next decade the club entered a variety of social teams into various relays and maintained a restricted programme of children’s athletics.
In 2009 Owairaka entered an agreement with the Auckland City Council for their clubrooms to be demolished to allow new clubrooms to be built adjacent to a new youth centre beside the Lovelock Track. The old clubrooms were demolished in 2010.
A year later, on 15 April 2011, and at the time of the 50th Anniversary of The Lovelock Track opening, Sir Murray Halberg opened the new Owairaka clubrooms adjoining the new Roskill Youth Zone. A five-year plan was set in place to rebuild Owairaka‘s membership within the local community and again be a leading athletics club in New Zealand
And so to the future.
The challenge is to rebuild Owairaka’s role in the local community and use the knowledge and experience of Owairaka’s history to develop athletes who can achieve new glory.