Full Name: Thelma Elizabeth Hopkins. (Later Mrs McClernon.)
Date of Birth: 16 March 1936
Club: Shorts, Queen’s University, Belfast.
Coach: Franz Stampfl.
An athlete of immense ability, and versatility. Thelma Hopkins followed a brilliant tradition of British women high jumpers by winning silver at the Olympic Games in Melbourne in 1956, just as Dorothy Tyler (nee Odam) had done in 1936 in Berlin and 1948 in London before Sheila Lerwill followed suit in Helsinki in 1952. Just like those two, Hopkins also broke the world record - and she was the last British woman to achieve that honour. But it was not just in the High Jump where she excelled; she won Commonwealth Games medals in the Long Jump and she was the British record-holder at the Pentathlon.
Old Enough, If Good Enough
Hopkins was born in Hull, but she was not even a year old when her family moved to Belfast and Northern Ireland became both her home and the breeding ground for her athletics success. At only 16, she was making an impression after finishing third in the High Jump at the Women’s Amateur Athletics Association Championships in Ilford with 1.625m when Tyler won gold with 1.65m. But it was enough to take her to the Olympic Games in Helsinki, where she was fourth having cleared 1.58m as South Africa’s Esther Brand won with 1.67m and Lerwill was second with 1.65m. In terms of experience and foundation, it was priceless, because by the time of the next Games, the records were flowing in.
Europe And Beyond
Hopkins was coached by Franz Stampfl, an Austrian who was at the heart of arguably the greatest moment for British athletics as the guru to Roger Bannister on his way to breaking the four minute Mile in 1954. It was in that same year that Hopkins won a major gold with victory in the European Championships in Berne in 1.67m, beating Romania's Iolanda Balas, who jumped 1.65m and would later become one of the event's greatest performers with countless world records, with Czechoslovakia’s Olga Modrachová third with 1.63m. It was a year where she would also celebrate gold at the British Empire and Commonwealth Games in Vancouver, jumping 1.67m to beat Tyler, convincingly, after she cleared 1.60m, before winning silver in the Long Jump. Her multi-eventing skills were showing and by 1955, Hopkins was progressing brilliantly in the Pentathlon, having competed at the 80m Hurdles aswell at both Championships that previous year.
In Ballymena, she accumulated a points total of 4289 for the British record and in 1961 she later improved her best to 4379 points (based on the 1954 tables) in 1961. But it was on May 5, 1956, in Belfast, where she earned her place in history when she jumped 1.74m to break the High Jump world record. It was a fabulous performance but the mark would last just over two months before Balas took it to 1.75m and in the next five years, the Romanian broke it on 13 more occasions, with her best being 1.92m.
Following British Greats
In 1939, Odam held the world record with 1.66m and 12 years later, her British teammate Lerwill had cleared 1.72m for the all-time best. Hopkins joined their club with her world record - and she followed that duo by winning Olympic silver too. The Olympic Games in Melbourne were not staged until the end of the year and it needed another world record, this time from American Mildred McDaniel, with 1.76m, to beat Hopkins to take gold on December 1. Hopkins and Russian Mariya Pisareva both shared silver with 1.67m.
She retired from sport in 1964 and having been educated at Queen’s University, Belfast, and Ulster College, she became a PE teacher, but her sporting prowess extended beyond track and field. She was a brilliant forward at hockey also, winning 40 caps for Ireland, and she was an Irish squash international.
1952: 4th HJ Olympics
1954: 1st HJ, 2nd LJ, ht 80mh Commonwealth Games; 1st HJ, ht 80mh Europeans
1956: 2nd HJ, dnq 15th Olympics
1958: 8th HJ, 7th LJ, 6th 4x110y Commonwealth Games
1961: 5th 80mh, 3rd HJ, 5th LJ World University Games
1962: 9th HJ, 6th LJ Commonwealth Games; 11th Pen Europeans
UK Internationals: 26 (1952-62)
Won WAAA HJ 1955 and 1957, LJ 1955, 80m hurdles 1957; Northern Ireland 80mh 1953-6, 1958, 1961-2; HJ 1951-6, 1958, 1961-2, 1964; LJ 1951-6, 1958, 1961-2, 1964; SP 1955, JT 1952, 1954-5; Pen 1955, 1957
220y 25.2 (1955), 80m hurdles 11.2 (1964),11.53 (1961); HJ 1.74 (1956), LJ 6.11, 6.12w (1956); SP 10.74 (1964), JT 35.42 (1961), Pen 3893/4379 (1961).