As much as she may joke about “turning 82 in a few days, for heaven’s sake”, sport and health have been the driving forces of Daphne Pirie’s life and she remains a serious advocate and example of the benefits of both.
A Queensland sporting great, first as a competitor and then administrator, on Tuesday (December 10) Mrs Pirie AO MBE will be the guest of Griffith Health and will address 2013 graduates from the Schools of Rehabilitation Sciences, Public Health and Health Promotion, and Pharmacy.
Her message will convey the ideals that have served her so well over the years – strive to achieve, enjoy every milestone, respect values, be inclusive and, perhaps most importantly, never underestimate the joy of simply taking part.
“Sport and health fit together so well, although sport has changed so much since I was a girl. The professionalism, the science and technology, the training and dietary programs, the public and media pressures: these are all modern developments,” Mrs Pirie said.
“However, the benefits in terms of health, fitness and wellbeing, the friends you make along the way, the goals you set and achieve and the thrill of competition are the things that, for me, have always made sport so special.”
Mrs Pirie admitted to some pre-address anxiety: “I never went to university and yet there I’ll be, talking to these bright young adults who are at such an exciting stage in their lives. What will they think?”
With a record of competition and service such as hers, the graduates won’t need to think. They’ll know they are in the company of a remarkable woman.
Born Daphne Welch in 1931, Mrs Pirie says she owes much to her father, Taffy Welch, who lost a leg during World War One as a member of Australia’s famed Light Horse regiment. He entered sports administration upon returning home.
‘I even did some boxing’
A former president of the Queensland Rugby League, Taffy encouraged his daughter’s sporting abilities. Six brothers ensured competition was always fun, but also fierce.
“I even did some boxing back then. Now it’s all the rage,” Mrs Pirie said.
By the early 1950s, the young Daphne had made the Queensland women’s hockey team. National hockey honours followed in 1955. Meanwhile, between 1949-56 she held 40 open championship titles with the Queensland Women’s Amateur Athletics Association.
When the Queensland Government of the day appointed her as its fitness field officer, Mrs Pirie’s “office” became the small towns and vast expanses of southwest Queensland.
“I ran learn-to-swim campaigns and I had a roll of government-issued first-class rail tickets to get me from town to town,” she recalled.
A new role establishing community and regional sports campaigns saw her based in Gympie and relying on lifts with commercial travellers to return to Brisbane on weekends to compete in sport.
“I always had to be back in Gympie early on Mondays to conduct swimming classes. Dad would drive me to Fortitude Valley by 4am and I’d join one of the travellers for the long journey,” Mrs Pirie said.
“It was great fun. I was my own boss and I was involved with sport and health. I came to understand the connections with people and places that sport allows you to make.”
Career in sports administration
Married to husband Mick Pirie in 1958, by 1959 the couple had moved to the Gold Coast and launched the town’s first hockey competition, an early move towards what would become Mrs Pirie’s extensive career in sporting administration.
As well as being the first female Vice-President of the Queensland Olympic Council, a life member of Hockey Australia and Hockey Queensland, an inductee in the Queensland Sporting Hall of Fame, a director of Gold Coast Events Management, the inaugural Deputy Chairman of the Queensland Academy of Sport and the founder of Womensport Queensland, in 2011 the International Olympic Committee presented Mrs Pirie with its Sports Trophy for her contribution to the Oceania region.
“I know sport has changed. I come from an era where natural ability was everything. Now, at a time when competition has never been tougher, natural ability is just a part of the package,” she said.
“Today no athlete can make it to the top without a complete support team, from the coaches, physiotherapists and exercise scientists to nutritionists, psychologists and so on.
“Natural ability is still vital and there will always be the absolute champions in that regard, like Marjorie Jackson in my day and Usain Bolt today.
“But the competitive spirit is a constant, no matter the era. The elite athletes of today could not be trying any harder than I did back then, and have continued to do.
“In sport as in life, celebrate your achievements but then set the bar high, promote a healthy lifestyle, embrace the disadvantaged, be genuine in your inclusion, believe in yourself and the values instilled in you. And never stop trying,” Mrs Pirie concluded.
And therein lies perhaps the most valuable lesson Griffith graduates can take from Mrs Pirie’s address on Tuesday: that as much as graduation is a wonderful and worthy milestone, it is only part of life’s journey; not its culmination.
Daphne Pirie is turning 82 in a few days, for heaven’s sake, but her message is timeless, and one that people of any age would be privileged to hear and even wiser to heed.