Current Affairs

Former Olympian Liza Hunter-Galvan's fight to clear her name

After a decade of crises, including false accusations of fraud, Liza still returns to NZ to recharge and find balance.

By: Lynley Ward

As she blazed a trail across one of the South Island's most famous hiking routes, few who came across former Olympian Liza Hunter-Galvan knew of the massive weight that had just been lifted from her shoulders.

The 48-year-old athlete pounded along the 60km Kepler Track in just a day and the cares of the past year fell away, replaced by relief she was no longer dogged by unfounded accusations of welfare fraud in the United States.

Texas-based Liza had just flown to New Zealand from her San Antonio home with eldest daughter Amber, 23, the day after negotiations with a prosecutor led to a plea bargain where all charges were dropped and an agreed amount of restitution paid.

In the remote Fiordland mountains, Liza dared to hope the latest episode in a turbulent decade – which saw her family almost wiped out in a horrific truck crash in 2007, followed by a doping ban that put paid to ever wearing the Silver Fern again – had come to an end.

"It was a big weight off, to have had the [welfare fraud] case not just dismissed, but to have everything done, just to have it over with." She says, "You suffer through a sentence of sorts just waiting for everything to end when you get into a legal battle."

The athlete nails Fiordland's Kepler Track in just one day!

In an exclusive interview with Woman's Day after her brief hiking holiday, Liza wants to set the record straight for the sake of her supporters, friends and family. She says it's taken a huge emotional toll, especially the day a warrant was put out for her arrest – an experience so traumatic, she still can't talk about it.

It's been a tough decade for the woman who left Aotearoa as a teen to take up a university athletics scholarship, before going on to represent NZ at two Olympic Games.

Married with four children, her picture-perfect life came to a sickening halt 11 years ago, when her teenage daughter took the full force of an 18-wheeler truck that smashed into their family pick-up, throwing her out of her seatbelt and leaving her in a coma.

Suffering from a traumatic brain injury, Amber was in the fight for her life before waking from a coma six weeks later. It was only then the extent of the accident became clear, with the 13-year-old needing to learn how to walk, talk and eat again.

Liza's brood (clockwise, from left) Taigen, Amber, Haleigh and Tristan.

Liza quit full-time work as a science teacher and focused on caring for her daughter.

Then, in the midst of the family crisis and still battling injuries from the crash two years earlier, she succumbed to using EPO, a performance- enhancing drug, that saw her banned from athletics for two years.

Liza has publicly apologised for her mistake and has never sought to represent NZ again.

Her latest nightmare began after a phone interview about renewing health insurance and food benefits for her kids, where she learned she was no longer eligible. Financial transactions from an investment property Liza had bought, sold and reinvested again on behalf of a relative had tipped her over the threshold.

"So I said, 'OK, if I don't qualify, I don't qualify,' and I left it at that."

Despite the call, Liza was confused when the benefits continued. Several months later, an investigation was launched.

Liza quit work to care for Amber, who was in a coma after a truck collided with their pick-up.

Liza says she co-operated with the investigator, sharing financial records to be scrutinised, confident she had nothing to hide. He reassured her she would be contacted if the case was taken further.

Around six months lapsed before she discovered "in the worst way possible" that a warrant had been issued for her arrest.

In the end, Liza never went to trial. After 12 months of paperwork delays, including the investigator allegedly withholding discovery documents, she'd compiled a set of detailed forensic accounts to support her case.

With charges dismissed, Liza claims the investigator went out of his way to prove her finances were suspect.

She claims, "He just took the information provided to him along with the other documents he subpoenaed and doctored the numbers, and I was able to prove that Gilder's numbers were wrong, inaccurate and bordering on negligent."

She questions why the failed case ever saw the light of day, with hundreds of similar cases going through the system and never being made public.

The runner is ready to move on from the doping incident.

But for now, with the draining legal action behind her, Liza has returned to running, completing the mountainous Kepler loop track in eight hours on very little training. At the same time, daughter Amber tramped up to the top of the
1472 metre-high Mount Luxmore, which overlooks Te Anau, with her grandma, enjoying the same experiences as any other tourist.

Liza says the break in the wilderness has been therapeutic as she sets aside her own troubles and focuses on giving her daughter the best life possible.

She tells, "We come to New Zealand a couple of times a year and we get out to do hikes. It's the one thing she can do where she's on a par with everybody. Her disability almost completely disappears. She deserves to have a life and that's my job now."