“When you first get to Stawell it seems thoroughly unremarkable. A sign says ‘Welcome to Stawell’ above a picture of a few blokes desperately throwing themselves at a finish tape and ‘Home of the Stawell Gift’ underneath. That’s your only clue that this town has something special about it………”
“Every Easter, in the shadows of the old timber grandstand old men congregate.They talk about old times from beneath old hats and through old teeth. Some carry souvenirs from wars with the empty arms of jumpers or shirts tucked into the tops of the trousers (although their numbers are dwindling fast). Some hold a green can in their slightly shaky hand and guide it up to their lips as if they’re parking a giant container ship. Others mutter to each other like old blokes do and laugh and cough about their glory days as athletes. They’re old runners……..”
Whilst the attention will be focused on Stawell ‘s 2014 ‘celebrities’, Melissa Breen, John Stefferson, Jana Pittman and a couple of ‘smokies’ from Queensland, a lean,dignified veteran will be limbering up, far from the madding crowd.
He has collected 13 silk vests ,awarded for being a semi-finalist in the Stawell Gift and for the 30th time has made the 461 kilometre pilgrimage to the mecca of pro athletics.
Greg O’Keeffe half-heartedly suggested to his wife Vicki a few weeks ago that he might give Stawell a miss this year. “Go”, she said. “ You’ll be complaining all week-end if you don’t”.
So here he is, drugged by the smells, the unique characters, the quaint atmosphere and traditions of Central Park. He’s among kindred folk, blokes who are so besotted with running that they’re still competing at an age when others have well-developed beer guts and arthritic limbs.
Stawell is famous for its betting ‘stings’ ; for stables extricating thousands out of the bookies ring after well-planned ‘raids’. But to dub people like Greg as professionals would be a misnomer. They are competing for the love of the game and have long ago repaid whatever they may have taken out of the sport.
Greg’s last success in open competition came at the 2005 Stawell Carnival, when he took out the 400m event. “I’m just about due aren’t I”, he laughs. But he has also won the Hank Neil 100m event twice and two prestigious Jack Donaldson 200m handicaps – the last of these 24 years ago. Fittingly, he is a member of the Stawell Athletic Club’s Hall of Fame………..
Greg was jogging around the Galen College Oval, trying to maintain some fitness after an exhausting 1980 footy season with the Wang.Rovers, when a car pulled up and a voice called out : …“Ow ya goin’“. It was Bernie Grealy an old runner and two-time Stawell finalist who is a bit of a legend in the sport around here.
He told the panting O’Keeffe that he’d seen him on the footy field and that he reckoned he could do all right as an athlete.
He must have sold the message okay, as ,within months Greg had his first run, which was in the Carnegie Gift. He was unplaced, but the adrenalin had started to flow. He ran in his first Wangaratta Gift in 1983. The next year he finished second in the Final.
Being introduced, as a Gift finalist, in front of a large home-town crowd, with the lights of the oval turned off and the spotlights beaming onto the Gift track,was a huge thrill to a Wangaratta boy. Greg experienced it five times, but in 1985 he ‘ran the house down’ to become one of only seven locals to have won the event. Running off 7 ½m he clocked 12.23 to narrowly defeat Murray Dineen, in a finish which was greeted with wild excitement .
He had a great run of success in ’85, as he also won the Bendigo backmarkers 400m and the Jack Donaldson 200m. This earned him the title of the V.A.L’s Sprinter of the Year. Those in the know reckoned he was handicapped out of calculations in big races for the next couple of years.
But Greg continued to compete, with some success, all over the state. The Burramine meeting is one which has been kind to him, as he counts the Gift among several other sprint wins at this quaint outpost on the running calendar.
As the years wore on he took charge of a small squad of athletes, using Appin Park as their training headquarters. Blokes like John Gannon share his passion and knowledge with up –and-comers.
Greg tells a story about Gannon,to explain the camaraderie that exists among the running fraternity. “We were down there one night this year and a young,tall bloke climbed the fence, stopwatch in hand, and started doing sprints. He was moving to Melbourne to play VFL footy and wanted to do a bit extra. Gannon couldn’t help himself, He’s gone over, explained the wisdom of warming up,etcetera and ended up taking him under his wing”.
Greg said he jokingly asked Gannon to have a look at his own technique, soon after. “Well….. you go with the gun all right. Your arms are moving okay. Your legs just don’t go quick enough !”
When the Wangaratta Carnival was in danger of extinction, O’Keeffe and several other locals decided to throw their weight behind the Club to lend support. He was President for 13 years and is grateful to fellows like Graeme Taylor that one of Wangaratta’s icons has maintained its place on the calendar.
At 54 years young, he doesn’t know how long those wiry legs will propel him around the pro athletic circuit, but he still thrives on the veterans and Masters events. Meanwhile, this week-end, whilst his son Sean is attempting to rein in any one of the half-dozen potential Albury match-winners at the Findlay Oval, Greg will be treading the hallowed turf of Central Park,Stawell.
Could there be one more victory left in the evergreen, G.J.O’Keeffe ?