Belinda Hocking has spent just on eight years in the bubble of international sport.
It has been a surreal existence. She has foregone all of the things that other young kids of her age took for granted – like going to 18th birthday parties, planning week-end outings with her mates, forming the normal relationships that you do in a country town, occasionally letting her hair down……
Whilst many other precociously talented youngsters have flashed across the kaleidoscope of the sporting horizon and then become burnt-out after a couple of years of intense training and competition, she has managed to maintain her focus.
It requires extraordinary dedication, particularly when there are occasional setbacks along the way. Belinda is driven by a simple motto: ‘If I work hard I will succeed.”
She has remained around the top in her chosen sport – swimming – for an inordinately long time and in 2014 achieved her greatest triumph.
The scene was Glasgow, amidst the rarified atmosphere of the Commonwealth Games pool. Hocking had swum her way into the Final of the 200m Backstroke – her favourite event.
Despite being moderately fancied, she carried a sort of monkey on her back. Unable to break through for a major win in international competition, she had been labelled the ‘Bridesmaid’ of Australian swimming.
Belinda had claimed bronze in the 100m backstroke the previous night, as her team-mate Emily Seebohm captured the Gold.
Again, it was Seebohm who represented her greatest danger in the 200. Hocking had qualified third fastest for the final and as she was dead-last at the 50 metre turn, she was conceivably without a chance. But she stormed home to win by two body lengths from Seebohm, her good friend and keenest rival, in Games record time.
Belinda was delighted. “I’ve always sat back in the stands watching others on the top podium”, she said.
“It’s what you strive for as an athlete. It’s what you strive for in everyday life, being the best you can and to get up and represent your country and to sing the national anthem in front of the world, it’s a pretty amazing experience.”
The story of Belinda Hocking is about overcoming the tyranny of distance, as a determined country girl attempts to maintain the training standards required, to become a top-line athlete.
She was four years old when she attended a Learn to Swim class. Swimming, her parents Ian and Jenny were advised, would help to combat asthma. Although she tried other sports, like gymnastics and netball, they didn’t present the same challenge and urge to improve, that swimming did.
In short, her and the sport just clicked.
When she was about twelve, and showing oodles of talent, it was suggested that she should train under a professional coach in Albury – Frank Hohmann. This meant rising at 4.30 each day, being driven up the Highway, training for two hours, then eating breakfast on the way home so that she’d be back in time to start classes at Galen College.
The process would be repeated after school, when Jenny would take her up for the afternoon session. They would eventually arrive home around 8pm, just in time to crawl into bed.
All this while needing to attend to her studies. Belinda’s lunch-break would be spent in the Galen Library catching up on school-work. The Hocking car became a mobile work-desk.
It was exhausting, but a necessary sacrifice to make and the signs of improvement were obvious. Unfortunately, just before she turned 16, Frank Hohmann moved to England and Jenny Hocking made approaches to see whether Belinda could be admitted to the AIS , in Canberra. She satisfied their guidelines and was accepted into the program.
Belinda didn’t quite fit the image of the stereotypical Australian swimmer. She’s reasonably short (165cm) and her slight frame had been strengthened by her eagerness to throw the weights around.
The first signs that she was about to make an impact on world swimming came in 2008, when, as an unheralded 17 year-old she finished second in the 200m backstroke at the Olympic selection trials and found herself in the Australian team, headed for Beijing.
It was all a bit much for a shy country girl to absorb, especially considering that she was being groomed for the London Games, four years hence.
So here she was, surrounded by sporting legends, with the eyes of an expectant nation trained upon her. Suddenly, she had got through the heat and semi-final of the 200 and had qualified sixth fastest for the final.
But nerves got to Belinda and, in her opinion, she had swum the race even before she hit the water. She finished eighth, in a time slower than she logged in her two lead-up races. It was disappointing, but, in hindsight, she had just put too much pressure on herself.
A string of successes in the Australian championships (she won the 200m backstroke from 2009 to 2013), made her a walk-up start in national teams. She missed the world championship 200m final by 0 .20 seconds at Rome in 2009, but was a silver medallist in Shanghai in 2011.
She was all so close to the top.
But the London Olympics, which she had been gearing towards for a few years, provided her with a shattering low. Ranked highly after her silver at the world titles the previous year , Belinda failed to reach the final of either the 100 or 200m backstroke.
She admitted later that she probably didn’t focus enough on her preparation and had anticipated that her times on paper would be enough to get the job done. The fact that she was a bit off-colour, didn’t help either.
Having spent six enjoyable years at the AIS, she made the decision to leave and move to Melbourne, where she would join the squad of highly-rated coach Rohan Taylor, at Nunawading Swim Club and connect with the VIS. In another lifestyle change, she moved out of home and began a Public Relations and Event Management course at Monash University.
Belinda bounced back from her London Olympic setback, by collecting the silver medal in the 200m backstroke at the world titles at Barcelona in 2013, behind American teen queen Missy Franklin.
And with her successes at Glasgow last year ( along with her gold medal in the 200 and bronze in the 100, she shared in the 4 x 100 medley relay team’s gold) she is back on track and looking excitedly towards the Rio de Janiero Olympics in 2016.
Whatever happens, the demure, likeable, Belinda Hocking has already mounted her case as one of the ‘All-Time Greats’ of Wangaratta sport.