Valerie Isobel Sloper was born in 1937 in Ashburton. She and her siblings attended Rokeby School from 1947 to 1950, and before that Lauriston School. The farming family moved around later farming at Hinds and Rakaia.
From an early age, Valerie loved sports and physical activity. In Essays in Pioneer Women, Susan Wall says she preferred footy with the boys to most activities at school. The highlight of each year for her was the County Sports Days held at the Ashburton Domain, where pupils from all the schools in the area would compete.
In 1952 Valerie was sent to Christchurch at attend the Technical School there. So isolated was the area Valerie’s parents lived in, that there was no school bus to take their children to Ashburton, so going to the city for secondary education was the easier option.
Although she originally lived with her aunt, being in a big city was difficult for the country girl, but it allowed Valerie to take an activity part in the sporting life of Christchurch. Wall says she buried herself in sport – taking part in a variety of events and eventually became champion of almost everything.
In her last year at college she boarded at the school hostel. By a quirk of fate perhaps, the school grounds were very close to where the technical school athletic club trained. This gave her the wonderful opportunity to meet Valedmars Breidis, an ex-Olympic trainer. It was this man who recognised her potential and directed her into specific events such as running and discus.
Valerie competed in many meetings, but always returned home to Ashburton to compete. Her proud parents followed their daughter around to view her progress. By 1955, when Valerie was just 18, she had been selected to compete at the Melbourne Olympics.
Valerie competed in every Olympic and Commonwealth Games from 1956 to 1966. She won gold at Perth, Jamaica and Cardiff, plus achieved other highly ranked placings. A come back saw her obtain silver in the 1974 Commonwealth Games in Christchurch. In 1976 she became chaperone to the women athletics at the Montreal Olympics.
In 1961 Valerie Sloper married Ashburton athlete Ross Young. Her first child, born in 1967, and three other children that followed, encouraged Valerie to review her involvement in sport. From being self-focussed and always wanting the win, Valerie realised the important part sport could play in improving the quality of family and community life.
In 1973 Valerie was appointed to the National Council for Recreation and Sport and later was part of the organising committee that instigated the Come Alive campaign. She believed that we should all actively take part in leisure, not particularly because it is healthy or practical but because it is fun. She said that the key to the Come Alive campaign was really to improve the health and wellbeing of new Zealanders.
In 1987 she was awarded an OBE for her services to sport and was one of the first inductees into the New Zealand sports hall of fame. To date, Valerie can claim to have won the most gold medals of any New Zealand competitor at the Commonwealth Games. She has won more New Zealand titles, than any other athlete, including 18 in the discus and 17 in the shot put, she also won the pentathlon title twice.
By Kathleen Stringer
1 Valerie Young on her wedding day. This image is part of the museum’s Binsted collection.
2 Ashburton Jaycees held a ‘Come Alive’ day in March 1975, where people could learn about the various groups that were available in the area.