Australia’s Golden Girl Betty Cuthbert Part 4: Living with MS

Betty Cuthbert 2_with torch at Sydney Olympics
Betty Cuthbert with torch at The 2000 Sydney Olympics

Rhonda Gilam was a typical woman living in Mandurah, a city south of Perth, Australia. In 1985, she was middle aged, married, and her three children were adults. She ran a bus charter business with her husband Keith, and she enjoyed golf, tennis and taking trips in her buses. But she gave it up when she said she received a message from God telling her to give up that life, which she did.

In 1991, Gilam heard a second message, according to this article in the Weekend Australian. The message is: “Ring Betty Cuthbert.” So she does.

Thus began an incredible friendship between Gilam and one of the 20th century’s greatest sprinters, Betty Cuthbert, the only athlete, male or female, to win Olympic championships in the 100-, 200- and 400-meter races. The two had met only briefly once before. As they had both recently experienced a dramatic re-awakening of their relationship with God as born-again Christians, they connected immediately over the phone. Gilam told Cuthbert that “she had been called by God to care for Betty Cuthbert.”

In her autobiography, Golden Girl, Cuthbert wrote that was surprised by the call, but when she was invited to take a weekend break with Gilam in Mandurah, Cuthbert agreed to join her. After a wonderful weekend with Gilam, Cuthbert decided to leave her home in Perth and move to Mandurah so she could be near Gilam, allowing herself to be dependent on someone.Golden Girl

This is no ordinary friendship. For the next 24 years, Gilam took care of Cuthbert, who was a far cry from her physical self of the 1950s and 1960s. Cuthbert had MS, or multiple sclerosis, a debilitating condition that impacts the nervous system, leaves her fatigued, impacts her motor skills and her eyesight, and currently requires her to be in an electric wheelchair. Cuthbert had lived with MS since the early 1970s without telling people beyond close family members and friends, and in fact left her family in Sydney so she would not be treated like a person with a disability.

Betty Cuthbert 3_with Rhonda Gilam
Betty Cuthbert with Rhonda Gilam

Gilam’s life became one of devotion to the care of Cuthbert. Until Cuthbert moved into a nursing home in 2015, Gilam kept Cuthbert’s apartment clean, transported her, showered her, massaged her, answered her fan mail, cleaned her clothes…everything. Another legendary Australian track star, Ron Clarke, a close friend of Cuthbert’s, was also grateful to Gilam according to the magazine article.

“I was just upset that she had done so much to be such a legend of Australian sport and then no one was helping her. I was disgusted. She was our greatest athlete. But she was also fiercely independent. So needing assistance was something foreign to her.” For years Clarke watched Betty fight her disease largely alone as she actively fought off first a wheelchair and later the notion of full-time care, relenting, at last, to the divine intervention of Rhonda. “When you get the call, you get the call,” Clarke says. “You have no idea what Rhonda’s done. She took her in, her and her husband, and they looked after her. Phenomenal. Had it not been for Rhonda, I don’t know what would have happened to her after that.”

Thanks to that special bond between Gilam and Cuthbert, the legendary winner of the 400-meter finals at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics is still flashing her radiant smile.