By Duncan Mackay, The Guardian, Thursday February 26, 2004
Shirley Strickland, who has died at the age of 78 in Perth, was a pioneer in a variety of fields, but her most memorable moments were on the athletics track.
She won seven Olympic medals - three gold, one silver and three bronze - during a career that spanned three Olympic games. But she was also a trailblazing educator, who used her experiences to inspire generations of young Australians.
Strickland, whose father David was a talented professional sprinter, made her Olympic debut in London in 1948, winning silver in the 400m relay and bronze in the 100m and the 80m hurdles, where she finished behind the Dutchwoman Fanny Blankers-Koen (obituary, January 26 2004).
Her athletics career was full of firsts. When she won the gold medal in the 80m hurdles at the 1956 Melbourne Olympic Games, she became the first woman to successfully defend an Olympic title. She had won her first hurdles gold medal in Helsinki four years earlier.
Strickland had taken a break after Helsinki to have a son. When she began training again, after her maternity leave, she found herself the subject of intense scrutiny, and similar criticism to that Blankers-Koen had been subjected to before the London games.
The critics claimed she was too old, she was a mother and her place was in the home. So determined was she to prove them wrong that after training on a sandy, poorly lit track five nights a week through the Perth winter, she was the first Australian athlete to move into the Olympic Village.
Her total of medals remained a record for women's track and field until the final day of the Sydney 2000 Olympics, when Jamaica's Merlene Ottey, competing in the 400m relay, won an eighth.
Strickland, too, should have had eight medals to her name. In London, she was awarded fourth place in the 200m. Judging at that time was by the naked eye, but when photographs of the finish were studied years later it was clear that she had beaten Audrey Patterson of the United States for the bronze medal. Strickland never complained, however.
John Landy, the second man to break the four-minute barrier for the mile after Sir Roger Bannister, said that Strickland's contribution went beyond the track. "It was a fairly lonely sport for a woman in those days ... she was very, very driven, a very determined, forceful athlete and a role model for many people," he said.
Strickland often rallied against what she saw as the ridiculous sexist attitude of the authorities. In 1955, the Australian Athletics Union wanted to send a chaperone with her to the World University Games. She argued that this was ludicrous for a 30-year-old mother and an experienced international athlete and traveller. She went to the games in Warsaw on her own and set a world record in the 100m.
Her achievements were publicly acknowledged during the opening ceremony of the 2000 Olympics in Sydney when, along with Dawn Fraser, Raelene Boyle, Betty Cuthbert, Shane Gould and Debbie Flintoff-King, she carried the torch before passing it to Cathy Freeman to light the cauldron.
Athletics Australia chief executive Simon Allatson said Strickland had been a great representative. "Shirley was a fabulous ambassador for the sport, a fabulous ambassador for women's sport, women's track and field and the Olympics and all it stood for," he said.
After her competitive career was over, Strickland was always available to other athletes for advice, though her direct manner sometimes made it difficult to accept. She also coached Boyle for a period and later became involved with athletics administration, holding managerial posts with the 1968 and 1976 Australian Olympic teams.
Three years ago she sold all her Olympic medals and memorabilia to raise $400,000 (£170,000) for her grandchildren's education and to promote environmental causes, which were close to her heart.
Her four children and 15 grandchildren survive her.
Shirley de la Hunty (Shirley Strickland), athlete, born July 18 1925; died February 17 2004