Sports Illustrated magazine is running a feature story on Jamaican Marilyn Neufville who set the world record in the 400-meter dash in 1970 at the age of 17 and in 1976 in Montreal became the first female track-and-field Olympian from the University of California Berkeley. She is the only Jamaican woman to set an outdoor record at that distance.
Neufville was born in Portland in northeastern Jamaica. When she was eight, she emigrated to the United Kingdom and began her running career. When she was 15, she won several junior national sprint titles and made her debut at the international level at the age of 16 when she competed in the UK 4×400 meter relay versus West Germany. In 1970, after living in the UK for ten years, Neufville created a controversy when she decided to represent her native country of Jamaica at the Commonwealth Games.
On July 23, 1970, Neufville ran the 400 meters in 51.02 seconds, surpassing the previous world record in the event by .17 seconds and taking over a second off her own personal best time. The day after the record-breaking performance that brought her to the world’s attention, she declined to answer questions at a news conference in front of 40 reporters, shaking her head at every question. According to her manager Norman Hill, she did not want to say anything that would harm her future in sports. Her world record was officially certified at 51.0 seconds and held for two years before Monika Zehrt of East Germany equaled her time; in 1974, Irena Szewinska of Poland ran the 400 in 49.9 seconds and went on to break that record another two times.
In 1971, Neufville achieved a world record in the indoor 400 meters with a time of 53.1 seconds and won gold medals at the Central American and Caribbean Championships in Kingston, Jamaica, and the Pan American Games in Cali, Colombia. She was named Jamaica’s Sports Woman of the Year in 1970 and 1971. She then moved to Los Angeles to train for the 1972 Olympics in Munich, but in January, injured her Achilles tendon in an indoor race. Later in 1972, she enrolled at the University of California in Berkeley, before the school sponsored a women’s track and field team.
Neufville competed in the 1974 Commonwealth Games in New Zealand, finishing in sixth place with a time of 54.04 seconds, three seconds slower than her world record. In 1975 at Berkeley, she finished fourth in the 880-yard event at the AIAW outdoor nationals. In 1976 she competed at the Olympics at the age of 23, making it through the first qualifying round with a time of 52.93 seconds. She had to withdraw before the quarter-finals due to an injury, and that ended her try for an Olympic medal.
Neufville remains an important figure in the history of Jamaica’s women’s track and field. In 2013, she was honored with the nation’s title of Commander of the Order of Distinction. Her time of 52.93 seconds set at Berkeley remains the fourth-fastest time in the school’s all-time list.
Neufville, now 68, currently lives in England and is an active member of the Cambridge Harriers running club in the boroughs of Greenwich and Bexley in Southeast London. See the feature on Sports Illustrated.