Out of all of Betty Cuthbert’s achievements, it was the moment she became the first female trustee on the Sydney Cricket and Sports Ground Trust which she was most proud of, according to good friend Rhonda Gillam.
But Friday’s announcement of Cuthbert’s posthumous Companion of the Order (AC) – the highest Order of Australia honour – would have come pretty close.
“She would be really honoured,” Ms Gillam, who was also Cuthbert’s carer for the last years of her life, said.
“She was so shy, she never thought that she was anybody and suddenly after winning Olympic gold medals, she was mixing with prime ministers and all the elite of the world.
“But to be put on that cricket board trust – it was her greatest honour. But this – I think she would say: ‘Oh my goodness; who am I?’”
The Mandurah resident and Australia’s Golden Girl became a household name in 1956, when she made her Olympic debut at the Melbourne Games.
So sure was Cuthbert of not making the Olympic team that year, she had bought tickets to the event so she could at least go and watch.
But she need not have been worried.
By the time the Olympic flame had finished burning in Melbourne that year, she had three gold medals under her belt as well as the world record for the 200 metres.
Cuthbert would then go to win gold medals at both the 1962 Perth Commonwealth Games and the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games.
Still to this day, Cuthbert remains the only Olympian to have won a gold medal in all sprint events, being the 100, 200 and 400 metres.
But her athletic success wouldn’t be the only legacy Cuthbert would leave.
At the end of 1969, Cuthbert started to feel the first effects of multiple sclerosis and while at first she kept the diagnosis a secret, she would later become a great advocate for MS research.
Cuthbert was a strong supporter of MS Western Australia (MSWA) and MS Australia and regularly appear at events and generously donated auction items to help raise money for research.
“Her role as an advocate was an inspiration for people living with MS,” MSWA chief Marcus Stafford said.
“Betty described MS as a dark cloud but even in her later years she was urging people to never, ever give up and her determined, unwavering spirit has offered hope to so many.”
Two research grants have been created in the athlete’s name – the Betty Cuthbert Scholarship and the Betty Cuthbert Fellowship.
Both are jointly funded by the National Health and Medical Research Council, MS Research Australia and the Trish MS Research Foundation, to assist research into the causes of MS and speed up the development of new treatments and therapies to reduce the effects of the neurological condition.
“She was a strong supporter of MSWA and MS Australia and regularly appeared at events and generously donated auction items to help raise money for research into MS,” Mr Stafford said.
“In 2010, there was a rose named in her honour, as a tribute to her tireless work for people living with MS and raising the profile of MS and even today, $1 is donated to MS Australia for every rose sold.
“Betty leaves behind an incredible legacy.”
More than anything, Ms Gillam said it was Betty’s humility which would be her greatest legacy.
Despite the gold medals, the world records and the high profile events, Ms Gillam said her friend never let it get to her head.
“Her humility was a gift,” she said.
“I say it’s a gift because you don’t get remembered for how good you were; it’s about how you were with it.
“And her humility – that’s why people loved her.”
Upon the news of Cuthbert’s honour, Canning MP Andrew Hastie said “Betty Cuthbert was a woman of extraordinary faith and character”.
“Her warmth, determination to succeed, humility in success, and grace through hardship exhibit the best of what it means to be an Australian.”
Ms Gillam will accept the AC with Cuthbert’s sister Marie at a gala dinner in Canberra later this year.