Gold In Alexandra: The Sadie Cameron Story

Photo courtesy National Library Of New Zealand, used under Creative Commons New Zealand BY-NC-SA licence.

Born in 1913 in Alexandra, New Zealand, Helen 'Sadie' Cameron was literally raised surrounded by gold. The small town where she and her brother Gillies grew up was founded during the Central Otago gold rush of the 1860's and both her maternal and paternal grandparents were amongst the area's earliest settlers who arrived in search of gold. Sadie's father Samuel was a member of Alexandra's Borough Council and worked as the manager of the Perseverance gold dredge and her mother Jean was one of the small town's most beloved residents, known for her generosity and charity work. Her grandfather Thomas Brown was a stonemason who helped build the Alexandra Bridge.

Sadie Cameron and Corinne Gilkinson at the 1939 New Zealand Championships. Photo courtesy National Library Of New Zealand, used under Creative Commons New Zealand BY-NC-SA licence.

Sadie, an athletic young woman who excelled at doubles tennis, first took to the ice at the age of twelve at Lanes Dam, Bridge Hill. She fell in love with the sport instantly, and was unphased by a nasty fall caused by an errant twig on the ice that left her with a grazed temple and her skating partner, Fritz Backholm, with a fractured nose.

Skaters on the Manorburn Dam in 1939. Photo courtesy Alexander Turnbull Library.

Enthusiasm aside, she was far from a seasoned skater when she entered the very first New Zealand Figure Skating Championships at Manorburn Dam in 1939. Despite her inexperience, she defeated three other women from Alexandra and Dunedin. Rhona Whitehouse, who penned the New Zealand Ice Skating Association's fiftieth Jubilee history book in 1987, noted, "Until 1934, when the Manorburn Dam was built, she had skated two or three times on what one might call rickety ice. The competition consisted of a forward outside eight, forward inside eight and change of edge, as well as back outside edges in the field. The only tuition she had was from an elderly Swedish gentleman who told her to 'lane ophir' (lean over). She said skaters had no idea about legs, body or shoulder positions. Her first lesson by a professional was from Norinne Calder from Australia." Later the same summer after she won her National title, Sadie bested three other skaters to win the Central Otago women's title, held at Idaburn Dam under the auspices of the Oturehua Winter Sports Club. She represented the Alexandra Winter Sports Club.
Photo courtesy National Library Of New Zealand, used under Creative Commons New Zealand BY-NC-SA licence.

Unfortunately, during World War II the early efforts of the New Zealand Ice Skating Association and the Alexandra Winter Sports Club ceased. There were no artificial or indoor rinks in the country at time and gas rationing made trips to the back country, where good ice was plentiful, limited. Yet in July 1943, Sadie impressed a crowd of six hundred at an ice carnival on Manorburn Dam which featured a relay race, hockey game, and exhibition skating. The July 21, 1943 issue of the "Alexandra Herald And Central Otago Gazette" noted, "There were no dull moments." Proceeds from the event went to the Patriotic and Parcels fund. She continued to perform exhibitions in these informal ice carnivals throughout the War.

Video courtesy Archives New Zealand - Te Rua Mahara o te Kāwanatanga, used under Creative Commons New Zealand BY-NC-SA licence. 

Sadly, during the War both of Sadie's parents passed away within weeks of each other and the man in her life, David Lawrence (Tam) Cooney, a fellow skater and member of the New Zealand Army Service Corps who served with the Mechanical Transport Company, was captured a Prisoner Of War.

After the War, Sadie reunited with Tam. They married and had two daughters, Marie and Pamela, and ran an orchard in Alexandra together for many years. In her spare time, she attended a Presbyterian church and enjoyed playing golf, flower arranging, gardening and volunteering with the Girl Guides.
Although she didn't initially return to competitive figure skating when free skating events were added to the New Zealand Championships in the late forties, Sadie won a couples ice dancing trophy with her husband - who served on the Alexandra Winter Sports Club's Skating Committee - in 1959.  For many years, she remained active in the country's skating community as a judge and mentor to up-and-coming skaters. Many of the young skaters she worked with called her 'Gran'.

Sadie passed away in Alexandra on November 11, 1992 at the age of seventy nine, three years before her husband. Her obituary from the "Otago Daily Times" noted, "Friends described her as a vibrant outgoing person with a wonderful sense of humour." Though she may not have had a long, distinguished competitive skating career, she will go down in history as the first woman in New Zealand to strike gold on the ice.

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