Ngaire Galloway, who represented New Zealand at the 1948 London Olympics with gold medallist Sarah Ulmer. Photo: Andrew Board.
Ngaire Galloway, who represented New Zealand at the 1948 London Olympics with gold medallist Sarah Ulmer. Photo: Andrew Board.

Nelson’s Ngaire is NZ’s oldest Olympian


The last time the Olympic Games were in London, Ngaire Galloway was a 23 year old national swimming champion and preparing to take the stand for her first qualifying swim of the 1948 games.

And she was almost beside herself.

Never before had she raced in front of so many people and with no coaching or support staff of any sort she wound herself up with feelings of nerves and not wanting to let down her country.

Then, as her name was called, the six other New Zealanders in the Olympic team, all men, stood in the stands of the swimming complex and did a haka. It brought the announcement of the competitors to a standstill and strange looks from spectators.

And for Ngaire Galloway, the last surviving member of the New Zealand team from those games, it almost tipped her “over the edge” but gave her an immense sense of pride in her country. “I don’t think anyone else had seen one before and they all must have thought ‘what’s this racket all about?’”

She finished third in the race, qualified for the semi-finals but did not qualify for the final.

Sixty-four years on Ngaire sat and listened to Olympic champion Sarah Ulmer last week as part of an Olympic road-show promoted by ANZ Bank in the lead up to this year’s games, also in London. Sarah spoke about her nerves before competing and her tears as other kiwi Olympians performed a haka – holding up the medal ceremony at Athens in 2004.

Ngaire says it shows that despite technology, better coaching, better support and better training environments some things don’t change.

“You still want to do well for your country, without question, and I think it shows how important it is to have these sports psychologist. I wish I had one.”

Ngaire was based in Dunedin when she qualified for the games, she trained in the morning before her day job as a secretary and in her lunch break. She was a New Zealand champion and needed to better the time of 72 seconds over 110 yards (100 metres) to qualify.

She did that in a pool by herself and with three time keepers watching on but had to wait three weeks before the Olympic Selection Committee confirmed she would be going to the Games. Before leaving for the six week boat trip she was engaged to Ken, who would later become a doctor in Nelson for many decades.

Because there was no swimming pool on the boat the crew lined a container for her, which was slightly bigger than a bath, she could drop herself in it and practise her kicking. Weights were jimmied up with pullies so she could pull on them to practice her stroke.

When she arrived in England she was separated from her teammates, because men and women could not mix and had to find a pool to train in as the team manager had failed to do so. Fortunately she found a place swimming alongside the Great Britain team.

In the leadup to the Games she won the English Swimming Championships but could not replicate her good form at the Olympics.

She says walking out in front of 83,000 people at a packed Wembley stadium for the opening ceremony was one of the highlights of her life. The games were officially opened by King George VI and the choir music was outstanding, but walking out with the six other New Zealanders when 83,000 Brits erupted in gratitude to New Zealand’s contribution in World War 2 was something else says Ngaire.

“I’ll never forget it, never. We just tingled all over, it was incredible.”

She has since been to two other Olympic Games as a spectator, in 1956 in Melbourne, and in 2000 in Sydney.

She says she will be getting up early to watch the games and will be keeping an eye out for favourites including Val Adams, Nick Wills, the rowers and another Nelson girl competing at her first Games, Blackstick Anita Punt.