Olympians: Neroli Fairhall

Episode Summary

Neroli Fairhall (1944-2006) was the first paraplegic athlete to compete in the Olympics.

Episode Notes

All month, we're talking about Olympians. Tune in to hear incredible stories of women who either were in the Olympics or likely should have been!

Every weekday, listeners explore the trials, tragedies, and triumphs of groundbreaking women throughout history who have dramatically shaped the world around us. In each 5 minute episode, we’ll dive into the story behind one woman listeners may or may not know -- but definitely should. These diverse women from across space and time are grouped into easily accessible and engaging monthly themes like Leading Ladies, Activists, STEMinists,  Local Legends, and many more. Encyclopedia Womannica is hosted by WMN co-founder and award-winning journalist Jenny Kaplan. The bite-sized episodes pack painstakingly researched content into fun, entertaining, and addictive daily adventures.

Encyclopedia Womannica was created by Liz Kaplan and Jenny Kaplan, executive produced by Jenny Kaplan, and produced by Liz Smith, Grace Lynch, Maddy Foley, and Brittany Martinez. Special thanks to Shira Atkins, Edie Allard, and Carmen Borca-Carrillo, Taylor Williamson, and Ale Tejeda.

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Episode Transcription

Hello, from Wonder Media Network, I’m Jenny Kaplan and this is Encyclopedia Womannica. 

Our woman of the day today was the first paraplegic athlete to compete in the Olympics. After her initial career was sidelined by injury, she learned a new sport, and embarked on a career of firsts. 

Let’s talk about Neroli Fairhall. 

Neroli Fairhall was born in 1944, in Christchurch, New Zealand. Athletic from a young age, she gravitated towards horseback riding. She represented her region, Canterbury, at national pony club championships. 

All of that changed in 1969, when Neroli suffered a severe motorcycle injury. The rescue alone was brutal -- she lay helpless for nearly 24 hours. When she was finally brought to a hospital and treated, they discovered that she was paralyzed from the waist down. At just 25 years old, her career, it seemed, was over. 

But Neroli soon reconnected with athletics in a new way. She met with Eve Rimmer who, at the time, was New Zealand’s most famous disabled athlete. Eve, who was also paraplegic, urged Neroli to try shot put. 

Encouraged by the idea that she could still compete in athletics, Neroli tested out other sports. 

As it turns out, her personality intersected perfectly with the requirements for archery. She was focused and calm under pressure. She had a good eye. And perhaps most importantly, she loved competition. 

In 1976, Neroli made it to her first national archery championship. She placed third. By 1979, she’d been selected for the New Zealand national team. And in 1980, she earned a ride to the Olympics, winning her first national title in the process. 

It was a historic achievement. But Neroli never made it to the archery range that summer. No one from her team did. Led by the United States, 66 countries, including New Zealand, boycotted the Moscow-hosted Olympics in protest of the Soviet-Afghan War. Neroli was crushed. 

Despite the disappointment, Neroli instead traveled to the 1980 Paralympics in Holland. There, she won a gold medal, and set a world record in the double FITA rounds, a grueling form of target shooting. 

The next year, in 1981, Neroli won her second national title, and was named to the New Zealand team for the Brisbane Commonwealth Games. It was the first and only time that archery was included in the Commonwealth Games. And Neroli was the first disabled athlete to have ever competed, in any event. 

In Brisbane, Neroli once again competed in the double FITA. The four-day event begins with each archer shooting 144 arrows -- 36 each at four different distances. The top 24 competitors then enter a grand round. Nine arrows, at each distance. Winner takes all. 

On Neroli’s first day at Brisbane, she struggled with the wind, finishing twelfth. But she persisted, and the next day, pulled herself up to fourth. On the third day, she was third. 

On the final day, the competition narrowed to a standoff between Neroli and Janet Yates, a teenager from Northern Ireland and the favored victor. 

For much of the day, Janet Yates led. But in her final three shots, Janet seemingly cracked under pressure. Neroli remained steadfast. Their points were tied. 

After 20 minutes of deliberation, officials announced that in a recount, Neroli had pulled ahead, and won the gold medal. The crowd erupted in joy. The game’s first disabled competitor was now, also, a champion. 

But not everyone was impressed with Neroli’s performance. At the event’s press conference, a journalist asked Neroli if perhaps she was at an advantage, given her seated position when shooting. 

“I don’t know,” she replied. “I’ve never shot standing up.” 

In 1984, Neroli’s Olympic dreams were finally realized. She made the archery team, and headed to Los Angeles. But being the Games’ first paraplegic athlete proved immensely challenging. 

Neroli’s steel wheelchair set off alarm after alarm at airports and competition venues. Every inch of her chair was inspected -- even the air-filled cushion she sat on. Reporters swarmed Neroli, each trying to get the scoop on her historic appearance. 

Ultimately, her performance at the 1984 Olympic Games was something of a disappointment. Neroli finished 35th in a field of 47. And if anything, her experience highlighted the lack of support for disabled athletes trying to compete on an international stage. 

Neroli would go on to ultimately compete in four paralympics, five world championships, and win a total of five national titles. A shoulder injury -- which required reconstructive surgery -- foiled her final Olympic attempt in 1996. 

In the last years of her career, Neroli turned her attention to coaching elite New Zealand archers, and serving as an administrator for disabled sports. 

Neroli died in 2006, at the age of 61. 

All month, we’re talking about Olympians. 

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Special thanks to Liz Kaplan, my favorite sister and co-creator.

Talk to you tomorrow!