On a sweltering Los Angeles day in August, 1984, the life of an 18 year-old Wangaratta boy changed forever.
He had been -up to this point in time- regarded as a precocious talent; possibly the ‘up and comer’ in Australian cycling. He had won the Junior Individual Pursuit world title in successive years.
Yet, in a touch under four and a half minutes (the time it took Australia’s ‘Awesome Foursome’ to win the Olympic Teams Pursuit Gold Medal) Dean Woods became a national – even world – sporting celebrity.
It had been a remarkable few days of Olympic competition for the still starry-eyed Woods, who rejoiced in sharing the triumph with his senior team-mates. Only a couple of years earlier he had been competing in juvenile events on Wangaratta’s Showgrounds bike track.
Michael Grenda, Kevin Nichols and Michael Turtur had won Commonwealth Games Gold in the same event two years earlier. Woods was added to the team after Gary West had broken his collarbone.
He had competed earlier in the Individual Pursuit on a borrowed bike and missed out on a Bronze Medal by just .05 of a second. But the Gold in the Teams event more than compensated for that disappointment.
“I’ve got to keep pinching myself to make sure it’s not a dream,” he said.
Wangaratta celebrated accordingly and when Dean and Glenn Clarke, (who had ridden in the Points Score at the Games) returned home they were treated to a Green and Gold -bedecked street parade, thronged by thousands of cheering fans and led by the Wangaratta Pipe Band………..
Dean Woods got into the bike game after watching his older brother Paul in competition. He fell in his first race, but someone picked him up, put him back on his bike and he rode off to win the race. He was smitten and, with huge support from his parents, was soon winning local and state titles. After his first junior world championship win he was contacted by Australia’s cycling guru, Charlie Walsh, who told him he had him in the frame for the Olympics. Walsh, based in Adelaide, coached him by correspondence and with regular phone conversations.
Dean was manic in his preparation, once he had the Olympics in his sights. Walsh could hardly have envisaged a more single-minded disciple. Nor could he have wished for a better scenario when he placed his faith in the youngster.
Woods recalled the moment when the Gold Medal was in the bag. “With two laps to go Michael Grenda,who was behind me, called ‘We’ve got it’.
“I thought ‘Got what?’. All of a sudden it hit me. We’d attained such a lead it was simply a matter of not falling off and riding hard to the finish line to collect the Gold”.
Dean returned to what he thought would be a ‘normal life’ in Wangaratta after the Olympics. He opened up a bike shop in Vincent Road with brother Paul, but the sniff of competition was now in his nostrils and he was always away racing.
At the Edinburgh Commonwealth Games, he claimed Gold in the Individual and Teams Pursuit, silver in the scratch race and bronze in the points race. In successive years he finished third and fourth in the world Individual Pursuit championships.
At the Seoul Olympics of 1988, Woods had a ride-off against Australian title-holder Tony Davis for the right to contest the Individual Pursuit. It was one of those political maelstroms that cycling can occasionally throw up.
Dean won. In the final of the event, two days later, he had to be content with a Silver Medal. He sprinted to an early lead over Gintautas Umaras, but the Russian caught him at the half-way mark and went on to win. He also shared bronze in the Teams event.
He further broadened his experience by turning to road racing in Europe. He was tipped to handle the transition with ease, but found it difficult. “I could cope with one-day races okay, but found the stages pretty difficult,” he recalled. He also rode with plenty of success in the six-day track events.
Old-time Melbourne-Warrnambool devotees still rave about his performance in the famous event in 1990. Starting from scratch, and with a roaring tail wind at his back, he established a race record of 5 hours 12 minutes, which will probably never be broken. He also mastered the brutal weather conditions of the southern Victorian Coast in 1993 to finish First and Fastest and ride himself into ‘Warrnambool’ folklore.
Dean had been riding at the top level for ten years and the critics were preparing to write his epitaph, when he decided to set his sights on the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. He was given little chance of getting back into the Pursuit team.
He rejoined the AIS program and picked up Commonwealth Games Gold in Victoria, Canada in 1994. Another world title followed in 1995. He then put his head down and pushed himself through the pain barrier time and again, as he strove for that bit extra which would earn him a berth in Atlanta.
Nudging 30, he was rewarded with another Olympic jersey. “I am here because I’ve put the work in, not because someone else put me here. It gives me a lot of satisfaction ,” he said at the time. He had ridden more than 100,000kms in preparation for his final shot at Olympic glory.
He bowed out of Olympic competition with a Bronze Medal in the Teams Pursuit.
The Woods CV makes for some impressive reading. When he retired he was the only Australian athlete of any sport to have won an Olympic Games Gold medal, a Commonwealth Games Gold medal (3) and a World Championship (3).
Dean Woods now spends a fair portion of his working day anchored behind an office desk. The champ has now moved on but his mind often wanders back to that momentous day 30 years ago, when the world saluted the ‘Awesome Foursome’.
Wangaratta’s greatest sporting achiever thrives on the anonymity of life in his home town. He is now totally absorbed in his role as a family man and he and wife Meagan devote a fair bit of their leisure time towards the pursuits of their three daughters.
Dean had not done any serious riding for about 12 years. The feeling of exhilaration he experienced when he again climbed back on the bike made him realise what he’d missed. He still gets a bit of an adrenalin rush when he starts to lift the intensity and those still-powerful thighs begin to power the bike at a rate of knots around the local roads.