On Friday 28 February 2014, the world’s oldest competing athlete, Ruth Frith OAM, 104, died in her home in
Brisbane. Although she was world famous as a masters athlete, she was also a
great contributor to athletics in NSW as a coach, official and administrator.
Born in Goulburn on 23 August 1909, Ruth
Pursehouse attended Goulburn Primary and Goulburn High
School. Her father Mr O Pursehouse was a timekeeper at school athletics carnivals
and Ruth was a talented athlete, going all the way to the State athletics
carnival at the Sydney Cricket Ground, winning the 100 yards title on one
occasion and being awarded the title of champion athlete of country high
schools. Ruth was involved in many activities at her school. She was an
accomplished musician attaining Grade 4 honours from the Conservatorium of
Music and was the student representative on the Schools’ Sports Union for
athletics and vigoro. Probably her best sport was hockey which she played for
many years. She was selected in the NSW country hockey team and later was on
the committee of the Goulburn Hockey Club.
On a trip to Dubbo, to play hockey, she meet Ray Frith,
whom she would later marry in Dubbo. In 1936 they moved to Sydney for Ray’s
work – he was a civil engineer. After a period in Darwin (where Ruth became
Secretary of the Darwin Golf Club), they lived in Lithgow from 1955-1960. Ray’s
job was to rebuild the rifle factory. The local athletics clubs in Dubbo,
Orange, Bathurst and Lithgow, used Ray to survey the athletics fields.
In 1960 they were back in Sydney and for the next 36
years, until 1996, both Ray and Ruth were key officials and administrators for
the sport in Sydney. Ruth was primarily a throws judge, appointed to the 1977
Pacific Conference games in Canberra. She was also a long jump coach.
“She really enjoyed being involved in the day-to-day
running of the sport,” her daughter Helen said.
During these decades Ruth held many administration roles
with the Women’s Amateur Athletics Association of NSW. Some were:
Country Secretary - 16 years
Records Officer - 6 years
State Executive – 16 years
Secretary Northern Suburbs Women’s club – 16 years
Secretary Mid-west club – 2 years
As a member of UTS Norths in Sydney, Ruth regularly
trained at Rotary field. She is remembered at the club with the annual awarding
of a trophy for the most improved under-18 female athlete.
Ray was also one of Australia’s leading athletics field
surveyors supervising fields around Australia. They were awarded life
membership of Athletics NSW and UTS Northern Suburbs and both received OAMs for
their contribution to sport.
Ruth also enjoyed other sports and was heavily involved
in lawn bowls as President of her local Hornsby club.
During the ‘50s and 60s her daughter Helen Searle
competed at two Olympics and three Commonwealth Games. She was a tremendous
athlete, years ahead of her time. Searle represented Australia in the high
jump, long jump and pentathlon and won three medals at the Commonwealth Games.
After Searle retired from international competition, Ruth
decided to resume her own sporting career in 1982, now aged 73. She joined
masters athletics, although her Helen noted: “Ruth loved training, about four
times per week, but she was not so keen on competition.’’
the Southern Star newspaper: "Mondays
and Tuesdays I do weights and Wednesdays and Thursdays I'll train and throw the
hammer or the javelin."
Helen estimates she set more than 25 world records during
a famous career in masters athletics, in which she primarily competed in
After Ray died in 2003, Ruth moved to Queensland to live
Helen recalled what Ruth rated as her finest
‘She would say marrying Ray and throwing 20m in the
hammer in the world championships in the US.”
Some of her other favourite things were watching her
great grandchildren compete, watching Ken Rosewall play in the Davis Cup and defeating
a New Zealand athlete at the 1984 veterans nationals.
In 2011 she was featured in an ABC documentary The 100+ Club. It was noted that when Ruth Frith was born, Edward VII was on the throne in Britain, the first
motor powered aeroplane flight in Australia was made and construction was
beginning on the Titanic.
Ruth enjoyed tremendous health, although in later life
had a pacemaker installed. Her advice about longevity was no drinking, smoking
or even eating vegetables. She had not eaten vegetable since she was a teenager
and didn’t like them.
“She was always
happy, full of laughter. She led by example, was a reliable person, also very
community and family orientated,’’ Helen said..
“She passed away as she wanted, peacefully at home.”
David Tarbotton and Ron Bendall for Athletics NSW
Image: Ruth Frith