Backward Glance – Jim Achurch, the Nambour farmer who won Commonwealth gold
  • Wednesday 04 April 2018

The 2018 Commonwealth Games are here.

Thousands of visitors and locals have already headed to the Gold Coast to see the impressive opening ceremony and watch the athletes compete, whilst many more are glued to the TV or watching the action online.

One of the Sunshine Coast’s greatest athletes, Jim Achurch, was Queensland’s very first competitor to attend the Commonwealth Games.

He won gold for Australia in 1954 for javelin.

In 1991, Jim was inducted into the Sunshine Coast Sports Hall of Fame.

He was a credit to the world of athletics on and off the field.

Born in 1928, Jim grew up travelling through country towns in NSW where his father Claude, a former NSW cricket representative, managed wool and pelt shops.

After Jim competed an apprenticeship as a railway carriage builder in 1952, he moved to Nambour where his family established a small crops farm at Bli Bli.

Jim quickly earned a reputation as a first class cricket and tennis player on the Near North Coast.

In 1953, Jim won the Maroochy Open singles in tennis for the Bli Bli Tennis Club and then again in 1954, the year he went to the Commonwealth Games in Vancouver.

Jim took up athletics in the late 1940s to improve his fitness on the tennis courts.

He was determined and trained hard. 

“While jogging around an oval I saw people tossing a ‘stick’ around,” Jim said.

He had a go at throwing the “stick” and by the end of the afternoon he was throwing the javelin much further than the instructors.

Jim’s throwing skills were developed while growing up on farms in the central west towns of NSW. 

He used to throw rocks at rabbits because he was too young to have a gun. 

Rabbits were a staple diet for many in Australia during those years and many men sold rabbits and their pelts in Australian towns for a living. 

Once the family became established at Bli Bli, Jim maintained a strong friendship with Nambour farmer and local tennis identity Noel Day.

He later worked with Noel in small crops on Mapleton Road.

Jim and Noel played tennis in winter and Jim combined it with athletics.

In summer, he travelled often to Brisbane by train to learn javelin techniques at Thompson Estate Athletic Sporting Club.

Working hard for Noel on Mapleton Road, he practised javelin by launching his only javelin on the hilly farm.

He worried at times about launching his javelin too far as it might become lost in the long grass.  

With his hard-working nature and determination, he was offered a half share in Noel’s farm.

Jim married Christine Winkle, a local girl, in 1955.

The farming region on Nambour-Mapleton Road was not ideal training terrain for Jim as it was very hilly.

Jim came into Nambour when he could to train on flat ground.

He gained third place in the national athletics titles in 1949 and 1950 for javelin.  

Third place was not good enough to be selected in the Australian squad so Jim continued to train, throw the javelin, and work on the farm for his living.

In 1953 and 1954, Jim won the Australian titles with a javelin throw of 216ft (65.8m).

Only the top 10 athletes were sponsored in Australia and had their fares paid to participate in the Vancouver Commonwealth Games.  

He was not one of those selected for sponsorship.  

Disappointed but resigned to the fact, Jim quietly advised the officials he would not be going to Vancouver, it was simply beyond his finances as a share farmer.   

A shot-putter, by the name of Don McNiven, encouraged Jim and helped organise a fundraiser.

There was no question about Jim going to Vancouver, the community of the North Coast district organised a huge fundraiser. 

The local newspaper, the Nambour Chronicle, also promoted the appeal to assist Jim to represent his country. 

It was the financial assistance from Queenslanders and Nambour that enabled him to go.

In a bulletin to farmers the “Committee of Direction of Fruit Farming in Queensland” known as the COD, asked farmers to consign a case of their produce as a donation to the funds for Jim Achurch. 

And donate they did.

They were instructed to mark the produce box “British Empire Games Fund Brisbane”.

Jim soon had Vancouver in his sights due to the generosity of the people in Nambour and the farming community in South-East Queensland.

On the July 10, 1954, Jim was given a rousing farewell at the Brisbane City Hall as a member of the Queensland representative side and was presented with a travelling case and a travel rug.

Prior to his departure by plane from Eagle Farm Airport (Brisbane Airport), members of his sporting club, the Thompson Estate Amateur Athletic Sporting Club, were prominent in the crowd of well-wishers sending him off.

He was also presented with a wallet of many pound notes to assist with his travels.

Thompson Estate Amateur Athletic Sporting Club is Brisbane’s oldest sporting club with continuous service to the community since 1900.

They had assisted Jim with technique and honed his abilities. 

This club based at Carina, under the direction of Bill Thompson, mentored and assisted training athletes and still does today.

Representing Australia in javelin at the 1954 Vancouver Empire Games, Jim won gold with a throw of 216ft (66.2m) whilst breaking the standing record by more than 17ft (5.18m).

The throw, which broke a Commonwealth record that stood for 14 years, stunned his rivals and thrilled the crowds.

He certainly lived up to the expectations of the local region and its faith in him.

In an early interview he recalled the day in Vancouver when he won that gold medal, the first by a Queenslander at an Empire Games.

He was leading the competition after the first two throws of 215ft (65.5m) but the other competitors started to “hit their stride” and Jim went back into fifth place.

Jim recounted to the journalist for the Nambour Chronicle, Scott Nicol, how he felt at the time.

“Then I started thinking about all of the wonderful people in Nambour who had donated money for my fares and told myself I had better not let them down,” he said.

He certainly did not do that.

Jim was the only Australian athlete to represent Australia at a dinner where he met the Duke of Edinburgh whilst at the Vancouver Games.

The Nambour farmer was the first Australian to throw a javelin more than 200ft (60.96m).

Upon his return from the Empire Games on August 17, 1954, a rousing welcome for Jim Achurch was held in Nambour’s Currie Street.

Around 1500 cheering locals lined the streets of Nambour to welcome Jim home as he was driven through the streets on an open topped truck.

A police car led the parade followed by the Maroochy Town Band.

A banner was stretched across the main street with the words “Congratulations Jim”.

Maroochy Shire Chairman David Low pass on his congratulations and it seemed to Jim that half the region had turned out to cheer him home.

An elite sportsman, he went on to represent Queensland many times.

As a top ranked tennis player in Queensland he represented his country eight times in total - three in athletics and five in veteran’s tennis.

In 1981, he won silver at the World Veterans Titles for javelin.

Jim never forgot the generosity of Nambour, the farming community who sent him to the Commonwealth Games in 1954.

To hear Jim, who passed away in 2015, talking about his life and sporting experiences, you can listen to his oral history interview from 1985 on the Sunshine Coast Council heritage website.

Thanks to Sunshine Coast Council’s Heritage Library Officers for the words and Picture Sunshine Coast for the images.

Image caption – Jim Achurch competing in the 1956 Olympic Games in Melbourne.