NORMA (AUSTIN) THROWER (5 Feb 1936 - )
Norma began her life in athletics as a sprinter in 1950 - but her father Arnold ‘Joe’ Austin introduced her to the hurdles where she became a world class competitor and an Olympic medallist. Joe, who ran in the Bay Sheffield in the late 1920s, remained her coach throughout her career.
Not long after starting athletics Norma competed in the 1950 National Women’s Championships at home in Adelaide. She was only 13 and was disqualified for breaking in her heat of the 80 metres hurdles.
She competed for the Western Districts athletics club in Adelaide and in 1951 won her first state hurdles title - over 80 metres. She went on to win 18 South Australian championships over 100 yards, 220 yards and in her favoured 80 metres hurdles.
Norma had to wait until 1952 for her next Nationals as the women’s championships were only held every two years. In Melbourne whilst still only 15 Norma finished second behind Shirley Strickland in the 80 metres hurdles. She also finished sixth in the 100 yards final won by Marjorie Jackson and was a member of the South Australian relay team which took silver.
The British Empire and Commonwealth Games in 1954 were to be held in Vancouver and Norma had a good chance of making the Australian team despite competition for hurdles places being fierce. The Nationals were on Leederville Oval in Perth with Olympic champion and home town girl Shirley Strickland the favourite. Norma came third in a blanket finish behind Gwen Wallace and Marlene Middlemiss in 11.5. Shirley did not finish.
In the end both Gwen and Marlene were selected for Vancouver whilst Shirley and Norma missed out. In those days it was possible for four athletes to be selected for an event in the Commonwealth Games but the selectors opted only for two.
The next Nationals were in 1956 in Brisbane and would be a good indicator as to who would make the team for the Melbourne Olympic Games. Norma won the hurdles in 11.2 secs.
Selection trials were separately held in Melbourne in October and Norma was selected for her first Olympic Games. At the Games, she won her first round heat in 10.8 (10.94) and later in the day finished second in her semi-final in 11.0 (11.20) into a headwind.
The final on the following day was again run into a headwind and Strickland defended her Olympic title in 10.7 (10.96) with Norma taking the bronze medal in 11.0 (11.25) in a photo finish from Galina Bystrova of the USSR, who recorded the same time.
With limited international opportunities for Australia’s athletes in those days, Norma’s next target was the 1958 British Empire and Commonwealth Games in Cardiff. The women’s Nationals were held on the Sydney Sports Ground, also serving as the selection trials. Norma ran a sensational final equalling the world record of 10.6. Unfortunately a following wind of +2.9 negated the record. However the win ensured her selection along with 1956 Olympic team mate Gloria Cooke and Wendy Hayes.
In Cardiff Norma won her heat in 10.8 (10.79) and then took the gold in the final with 10.7 (10.72) with Gloria third in 10.9 (10.94) and Wendy fifth in 11.2 (11.21). Both races had big tail winds so no records could be claimed.
After the Games Norma toured Europe with a group of her teammates including Betty Cuthbert, Herb Elliott, Albie Thomas and New Zealander Murray Halberg packed into a Gordon Pirie Kombi van replete with sleeping bags and spikes. They ran in Belgium and also in Scandinavia and watched the 1958 European Championships in Stockholm before returning via Nigeria.
The 1960 National Championships were held on the quaint North Hobart oval in March and Norma won by inches over Cooke, with both getting the same time of 10.9. They just pipped future Olympian Pam Kilborn, with the great Strickland back in fifth place. Nearly three weeks later at the Brisbane Exhibition grounds Norma equalled the world record of 10.6 – and this time the wind was legal.
Norma went to the Rome Olympics as one of the favourites but her form had deserted her. She finished second in her heat in 11.4 (11.54) but was only fifth in her semi in 11.3 (11.46) and missed the final. She also ran in the 4x100 metres relay but unfortunately the team was disqualified after dropping the baton.
After the Games Norma finished her wonderful athletic career crowned by an Olympic bronze, Commonwealth gold and a world record but also including one national and eight South Australian records, three national championships and 18 South Australian titles.
Paul Jenes OAM
Athletics Australia Statistician
Acknowledgements: Paul Jenes & Peter Hamilton – Australian Athletics Results; Fletcher McEwen – History South Australian Athletics; John Brant & Janusz Waśko – World Women’s Athletics 1921-196; IAAF – Progression of World Records; Mark Butler – Athletics Statistics Book Athens 2004; Ekkehard zur Megede – The Modern Olympic Century 1896 – 1996, Brian Roe