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Olympic champion Norma Thrower’s journey from a Prospect paddock to Rome

As a child, Norma Thrower jumped over handmade hurdles in the paddock next to her Prospect house. As an adult, she jumped Olympic hurdles in Rome. Now, at 88, she is being inducted into the South Australian Sport Hall of Fame.

Feb 09, 2024, updated Feb 12, 2024
Norma Thrower was once one of the world's best hurdlers, competing in two Olympics and setting a world record. Photo: Isabella Kelly/InDaily

Norma Thrower was once one of the world's best hurdlers, competing in two Olympics and setting a world record. Photo: Isabella Kelly/InDaily

When Norma Thrower was 13, she took up athletics, trained by her father in the empty block next to her home in the Adelaide suburb of Prospect. It was there she discovered she had not only a talent for hurdling, but a love for it too.

Norma soon joined the Western Athletics Club, where she would train five days a week, competing against other juniors.

“I probably got all the medals from the years I was in it, because I was the best they had at the time… no one else did it,” she told InDaily.

Norma stuck with her first coach, her father Arnold Austin, right through her career. Arnold was also an athlete, winning the Bay Sheffield in 1927.

After work he would drive around Adelaide to meet Norma for training, always bringing the hurdles he had made. However, the lack of competition left her struggling to improve.

Norma’s father, a retired competitive runner, coached her throughout her career. Photo: Isabella Kelly / InDaily

“There weren’t any girls that were of my standard to practice against,” she said. “I wasn’t getting anything by having them there. So I had the men.

“Geoff Jones, one of the top hurdlers in the state, would come out and train with me. He was fantastic, he helped me a lot… I think that’s what made me a better hurdler.”

At 13, Norma competed in the 1951 State Championships, winning her first state hurdles title in the 80-metre race, which remained her favoured race throughout her career.

At 15, she competed in a national competition held in Melbourne, coming second only to Shirley Strickland, who had already won Olympic medals for hurdling at that stage.

At 19, Norma went to Brisbane to compete in the 1956 Nationals, where she took out the 80-metre hurdles in 11.2 seconds. In October that year, she was selected for her first Olympic Games, in Melbourne.

There she competed again against Strickland, who was defending her Olympic title.

One hundred thousand people packed into the MCG to watch the opening ceremony. But the huge audience did not deter Norma – she took home an Olympic bronze medal with a time of 11 seconds.

“You don’t think of the people… you’re not concentrating on them,” she recalls.

Of the 3314 athletes competing in the 1956 Olympics, only 376 were women.

“Nobody was really interested in sport – or not women’s sport,” she says.

Norma Thrower was 13 when she won her first state championship title. Photo: Isabella Kelly / InDaily

Norma laughed when asked if she had always competed simply for the love of the sport, as if to say “why else?”.

“They didn’t give you any money! When we’d go away with the team you got something like 14 shillings a day.

“The kids don’t do it for the heck of it [anymore], for the love of it. That’s gone out years ago.”

Two years after her Olympic win, Norma travelled to Cardiff for the 1958 British Empire and Commonwealth Games.

It was here, 16,000km from those hurdles in her backyard, that she won gold, with a record time of 10.7 seconds.

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Due to a tailwind, however, her record could not be claimed, but Norma corrected that in Brisbane in 1960, when she officially created a new world record for the 80-metre hurdles: 10.6 seconds.

Fresh off the Cardiff win, Norma packed into a Kombi van with a group of teammates and set off around Europe, competing in Belgium and Scandinavia, watching the 1958 European Championships held in Stockholm, and visiting Nigeria on the way home.

The green and gold boots Norma raced in for Australia, which were custom-made by R M Williams. Photo: Isabella Kelly / InDaily

After competing in the 1960 Rome Olympics, Norma decided it was just about time to retire.

“I gave it away after [19]60, I realised I was not getting faster. I think… I came to the end.”

Norma followed her Olympic adventures with a different life, of which she is just as proud. She had two children with her late husband Dalton, who passed away from cancer around 20 years ago.

“I never wanted anybody else,” she said.

Norma Thrower is a proud Olympic champion.

She has kept just about every newspaper story ever written about her in a leather-bound scrapbook. She is also a very proud mother and grandmother, and now a member of the South Australian Sport Hall of Fame.

She lives with a 19-year-old Burmese cat, and still walks every day. She celebrated her 88th birthday on Monday (February 5).

“I enjoyed my life. I’ve done a lot in it.”

The latest inductees to the South Australian Sport Hall of Fame will be announced at Adelaide Oval on March 1. For details and tickets, go here.

Read InDaily throughout February as we reveal this year’s inductees.

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