When 76-year-old Justine Whitaker took up athletics six years ago, she didn’t expect to gain a ranking of sixth best in the world or to compete internationally as a self-taught sportswoman. Now she’s heading to Spain for the World Masters Athletics Championships. 

Justine wearing just a few of her medals

“I’m naturally competitive with myself,” admits Summerset at Wigram resident Justine Whitaker, who bought athletic equipment on a whim one day in a bid to teach herself. A retired physical education teacher, she then entered herself in the South Island Masters Games, confessing, “I couldn’t throw a javelin at that stage, and didn’t know what a heavy weight was!” 

Shortly after, she went on to win five gold medals at a Wellington-based competition. “I became hooked, and thought, ‘If I want to compete, I need to become good.’” Justine competes regularly on Saturdays alongside Canterbury’s under-18s and under-21s, and says she picks up tips and tricks from watching them. “I visualise a lot, and try different things. When I can’t sleep, I practise in bed in my head!” 

Carrs Basin, a green space across the road from Justine’s Summerset villa, provides a great area for her training, which takes place three to four days each week year-round. “I created my own throwing style, which is working for me. I call it the ‘Whitaker Whirl’. 

“On a nice day, there is nothing better than being on a field and throwing something as hard and far as you can. You feel powerful,” she says, before sheepishly adding, “then tired!” 

Justine competes across a range of athletics events including javelin, discus, shotput and hammer throw

Justine is chuffed with her ranking and process to date, especially with two artificial hips and one artificial knee. “I compete with ladies who have been doing athletics their whole lives, and have been at Olympic and Commonwealth level, so it’s a lot of fun and excitement. I’ve got something to strive for – my competition has been doing it for 40 years!” 

Justine is now preparing for the World Masters Athletics Championships in Spain in September, where she will be competing in heavy weight throw, discus, javelin, shot put and hammer throw events. “Discus is normally my favourite, but I’ve had so much success recently with heavy weight that I’ve really started enjoying that! I’ve got a Spanish phrasebook – I’m really looking forward to it.” 

Justine is aiming to get into the finals, which means placing in the top eight for her age group. She currently holds the national title for discus. “While I’m alive, I want to be able to really live. They say a chair is a killer, and I spend a lot of time reading, so athletics balances the time out,” she jokes. “Movement is good for the brain, and the brain is my most treasured organ.”