(1909 – 1983)
The star of the 1938 British Empire Games (now Commonwealth Games) was without doubt a little known West Australian, Decima Norman, who stunned the athletic world by winning five gold medals, a feat yet to be equalled. She received the sort of ovation at the Sydney Cricket Ground usually reserved for Donald Bradman.
Who was this amazing athlete who went onto equal the world 100 yards record in 1939 and what could she achieve in the 1940 Olympic Games?
Decima Norman was born in Tammin, Western Australia in 1909 and was raised by her brother Frank and his wife Elizabeth when her parents died early. She went to school at Perth College and in 1925 she became the state school champion in athletics. However, after leaving school she played hockey, representing Western Australia in 1935.
Although there was no organised athletics in Western Australia for women in those days, she continued to train as she loved the sport. In 1932, Frank Preston a former professional runner began coaching her, both hoping that one day she would have proper competition.
Frank enquired about selection for the 1934 British Empire Games but Australia decided not to send any female athletes to London for those Games. Decima was still limited to specially arranged women’s handicap races during men’s professional events at the Subiaco Football Ground.
As Western Australia had no women’s athletic association, Decima was prevented from trying out for the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, again missing out on an international opportunity. Australia only selected one female athlete for Berlin, Doris Carter who finished fifth in the high jump.
Decima’s plight forced Western Australia to form a women’s athletic association in 1937 and in the inaugural championships she won every event.
The 1937 Australian women’s championships were held in December at Royal Park, Melbourne. Four West Australian athletes, with Preston as manager/coach made the long journey by train. At the championships Decima won the sprint double and then joined her team mates Joan Woodland, Merle Nissen and Joy Barnett in winning the 4x110 yards relay. Both Decima and Joan gained selection in the sprints for the 1938 Empire Games to be held in Sydney in February.
She and Joan travelled to Sydney for the Games, this time by boat and were again accompanied by Preston. At age 28, Decima was finally able to compete at a major international meet. Interestingly she claimed her age to be 22, believing she had a better chance of being selected if she was younger.
Decima was not a pretty runner. At 5’2” (1.57m) she was short but powerful and according to Preston, ‘ran like a hen in flight, her head turned over her left shoulder and her arms flapped’.
Running brilliantly in the 100 yards from the outset, Decima ran 11.1 in the heats. In the final she beat team mate 19 year old Joyce Walker and Canadian Jeanette Dolson, consigning South Africa’s world record holder Barbara Burke to fourth.
Two days later she won the long jump with a leap of 19’0¼” (5.80m) and anchored the three woman 440 yards medley relay team to gold with Jean Coleman and Eileen Wearne.
In the 220 yards, Decima easily won her heat and semi-final running 24.5 seconds. After a two day break she triumphed in the final in 24.7 seconds leading an Australian clean sweep with Coleman and Wearne. The fifth gold came in the 660 yards medley relay with Coleman, Thelma Peake and Joan Woodland.
Decima may also have won the high jump but was forced to withdraw due to an event clash. Maybe she would have won that as well. Australia won a total of six track and field gold medals in Sydney and Decima won an amazing five of these.
In March 1939 Decima went to New Zealand and raced New Zealand champion Doreen Lumley who had been a semi-finalist in Sydney the year before. The Kiwi prevailed in Auckland by inches over 100 yards with both equalling the world record of 11.0, but only Lumley’s time was ratified.
A week later in Morrisville Decima equalled that mark, beating Lumley’s 11.1 in a handicap race. Her time was ratified as an equal world record as she had run off scratch.
By then, Decima had set her sights on the 1940 Olympic Games scheduled for Tokyo, Japan and moved to Sydney in 1939 to train for them. The outbreak of World War 2 ended those dreams.
She went on to represent NSW at the 1940 Australian women’s championships held at, of all places, Leederville Oval, Perth, winning the 90 yards hurdles, the long jump and anchoring the NSW relay team to victory.
With no real competition during the war years Decima retired from athletics, disappointed that she had been denied her chance to compete at an Olympic Games.
In the 1950s, Decima married Eric Hamilton, a former top New Zealand rugby player and managed restaurants. In retirement she and Eric moved back to Albany, Western Australia.
In 1982 Decima was invited to fly to London to receive the Queen’s Message for the 1982 Commonwealth Games. The following year in April she was presented with her MBE from Prince Charles in Perth. Sadly that very night she became ill and was taken to hospital. She passed away at the end of August 1983.
Graham Thomas, Track and Field Athletics Australia
Richard Hymans, IAAF World Records
ATFS. Track Performances Throughout the Years 1935-1945
Paul Jenes, Fields of Green, Lanes of Gold
Rob Whittingham, Stan Greenberg, Paul Jenes, Athletics at the Commonwealth Games