Page 1: Biography
Rimmer, Eva Marion
Paraplegic athlete, disability rights advocate
This biography, written by Sarah Burgess, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2018.
Eve Rimmer was one of New Zealand’s greatest paraplegic athletes, winning 32 medals – including 22 gold medals – for athletics and swimming at international sporting events. A household name during the late 1960s and 1970s, she was also an outspoken advocate for the rights of the disabled in sport and society.
Eva Marion Davies was born in Whanganui on 3 April 1937, one of four children of Marion Isabell Edwards, a schoolteacher, and her husband William Darcy Davies, a railway worker. William was a veteran of the First World War and already had five adult children from his first marriage. He married Eve’s mother in 1933 and the family lived in several places around the North Island before settling in Edgecumbe, Bay of Plenty.
Eve attended Whakatane High School, but in 1952, aged 15, she dropped out. She was unhappy at school, neither excelling nor struggling academically, and although she was a talented sportswoman and loved music and dance, opportunities to pursue these activities in a small town were slim. She later described her teenaged self as mixed-up and somewhat aimless, having little idea what she wanted to do with her life. With the support of her parents, she found work and lodging at a Whakatane hotel, where she waitressed, prepared food and washed dishes. Free and independent, Eve led an active social life, spending her spare time in outdoor activities and attending dances.
Car accident and living with disability
In November 1952, Eve was on her way to a dance with three friends when their car skidded and rolled near a bridge over the Whakatāne River. Eve was pinned on her back underneath the car, covered in petrol. When she tried to get out she discovered she could not move her legs, and that she was in intense pain. She had suffered a multiple fracture dislocation to several vertebrae, which had crushed her spinal cord. She was taken first to Whakatane Hospital and then to Cook Hospital in Gisborne, where she underwent surgery on her spine. The surgery was unable to mitigate the damage, leaving her paralysed from the waist down.
Eve spent 13 months in hospital undergoing rehabilitation. With characteristic stubbornness and determination she learnt first to sit up, then to get into a wheelchair, and eventually to walk with callipers and crutches. This was a significant achievement; at that time few similarly disabled people could live without a wheelchair. Eve also learnt to deal with the incontinence resulting from her paraplegia, which remained a daily and unwelcome reality until she had an ileal loop operation in 1971 which gave her greater control.
Over the next few years Eve slowly adjusted to life as a paraplegic, with the support of family and close friends. She learnt to play the guitar and piano, and taught herself to sew so she could supplement her disability pension. She could still swim and discovered she could handle a canoe, which gave her a sense of freedom. In 1958 she started saving to buy a car that could be fitted with hand controls, and she passed her driver’s licence exam soon afterwards. She also became one of the few female amateur (ham) radio operators.
Eve still struggled with the daily frustrations of her disability; as someone who had always been physically active and enjoyed sport and the outdoors, her new reality was difficult to face. It took about five years for her to accept that she would never again walk unaided. In the early years after her accident her social life suffered, and she had to fight the inclination to stay at home, largely due to her difficulties with incontinence. She also found it challenging to interact with strangers, who had a tendency to stare, and some encounters turned negative. Eve was once berated at the theatre by an ex-serviceman for not standing as ‘God save the Queen’ played. When asked why she refused to stand, she replied that she was a communist. It was only when the man tripped over her crutches at intermission that he realised why she had remained seated. He quickly apologised.
On 31 December 1959 Eve married 21-year-old Kelvin Stanley (Kel) Rimmer, a radio engineer she had met at night classes. The couple faced criticism from some of Kel’s friends, who felt that Eve would not make a fit wife. Eve soon became pregnant and in 1960 gave birth to a daughter; a second followed in 1962. The Rimmers settled into the rhythms of family life in Edgecumbe, but their lives became more difficult in 1961 when Kel contracted polio and his arms, shoulders and chest became paralysed. It took several years for him to recover. In spite of their many hardships, Eve and Kel created a loving family home and raised their daughters without outside help.
International sporting career
In 1967 Eve read an article in the Rotorua Post in which Jim Savage, also a paraplegic, highlighted the emerging paraplegic sporting movement and called for fellow paraplegics to form a sports club in the area. Eve contacted Savage and he introduced her to paraplegic sports, opening the possibility of being active from a wheelchair, something she had not thought possible. To her, wheelchairs were for the old and useless. She began training and set her sights on competing at the first national paraplegic games in Auckland in April 1968, intending to qualify for the third international paraplegic games, which were being held in Israel later that year.
Eve performed well at the national games, and was selected (along with 14 men) to compete in athletics and swimming in Israel. This was the first time a New Zealand team participated in the Stoke Mandeville Games. In Tel Aviv that November Eve won four medals: a bronze in the discus, silvers in the shot put and freestyle swimming, and gold in the javelin. She was the only member of the team to win any medals. Sadly Eve’s father, one of her greatest supporters, did not live to see her achievement. He died the day before the Games began, but Eve was not told until after the competition ended.
Over her 12-year career, Eve represented New Zealand at four Paralympic Games, two Commonwealth Paraplegic Games, one International Stoke Mandeville Games and one Far East and South Pacific Games for the Disabled. A fierce competitor, her goal was always to win, and the field events were where she excelled. At the 1976 Toronto Paralympic Games she won gold in the shot put, discus, javelin and pentathlon. She also added archery to her repertoire, and over the course of her sporting career won multiple medals in a variety of events and held world and Commonwealth records. Her international achievements led to recognition in New Zealand, where she was soon a household name and the focus of media attention. In 1972 she was runner-up in the New Zealand Sportsman of the Year award, and in 1990 she was the first disabled athlete inducted into the New Zealand Sports Hall of Fame.
Disability rights advocacy
As well as competing as an athlete, Eve also got involved with work to promote and develop paraplegic sports in New Zealand. She served as a national councillor on the New Zealand Paraplegic and Physically Disabled Federation, and with Savage established a club for paraplegics in Kawerau where the disabled community could gather and participate in social and sporting activity in an open, supportive environment. The pair also helped to establish additional clubs around the central North Island. In 1990 Eve was the driving force behind the Games for the Disabled that were held in Whakatāne as part of New Zealand’s sesquicentennial celebrations. Eve believed that the disabled should have equal opportunities to participate in their community and to lead active lives, and that physical activity could do much for their mental, social and physical rehabilitation.
At a time when the rights and needs of the disabled community were often overlooked, Eve was an ardent campaigner and advocate. As her profile grew, she took on public speaking engagements in an attempt to raise awareness and understanding. She toured the country giving public lectures on her experiences and the barriers to participation, architectural and otherwise, faced by paraplegics. She also presented papers at conferences and participated in fundraising initiatives, including a three-month-long campaign for a trust to aid the rehabilitation and housing of paraplegics, particularly new ones. In 1973 her work to promote paraplegic sports and rehabilitation through sport was recognised with a British Empire Medal.
A forthright and honest individual, Eve spoke openly and frankly about the realities of life as a paraplegic. She detailed her difficulties with incontinence in a television documentary in the early 1970s, and was equally direct in her 1978 autobiography, No grass between my toes (with Garth Gilmour), where she described the frustrations of undertaking everyday tasks that able-bodied people took for granted. For several years in the early 1980s she gave lectures to medical students at the University of Otago about the sex lives of paraplegics. Occasionally criticised for discussing such personal matters, she did not let others’ opinions stop her from doing what she considered important work.
Eve retired from international sport after the 1980 Arnhem Paralympics. Shortly afterwards, she and her husband separated. She continued her advocacy work and promotion of paraplegic involvement in sport, and enjoyed her grandchildren. In the early 1990s her health began to deteriorate, and she had to have her left leg amputated. She died of cancer at Tauranga Hospital on 23 November 1996, aged 59.
In an obituary, Garth Gilmour recalled Eve Rimmer as ‘both tough and tender, gentle and bawdily rumbustious, a caring mother and a carefree partygoer, a private person and a public figure’. 1 Through her success on the international sporting stage, Eve raised the profile of paraplegic sport and cleared the way for future New Zealand paraplegic athletes, helping to promote the rights of the disabled community at the same time. Yet despite her many personal and professional successes, Eve still wished to be free from her disability. She admitted to suffering deep depression and openly stated that she would give up everything for two working legs.