‘THE SNOWMAN…..’

Ben Derrick’s sole cricket premiership came in March 1990.

He was just 16 when he and his twin brother Chris played starring roles in Rovers-United’s C-Grade flag win over Magpies.

As his sporting career veered off in a completely different trajectory from that point on, it would be understandable if his passion for the game had dwindled.

“Far from it,” he says. ” I’ve always been a cricket tragic. In fact, when you rang I was logged onto Cricinfo, catching up on Australia’s opening tour match against the Indian X1.”…….

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Competing on the world’s most famous snow slopes against the cream of international skiers, seems light years away for a lad who was once making his way as an all-rounder in the lower grades of Wangaratta cricket.

But in truth, Ben’s family heritage decreed that his future lay in skiing.

The Derricks have been long-term farmers at Boweya – a tiny hamlet which is negotiated via a brief 15-minute jaunt over the Warby Ranges. It’s renowned as good sheep and cropping country – but hardly, you would say, the archetypical launching-pad for the career of one of Australia’s finest cross-country skiers.

Ben and Chris were brought up in and around the Wangaratta Ski Club.

Their inspiration was an uncle, Charlie Derrick, a dual Victorian Langlauf champion, who is still commemorated for his deeds and – in particular – for a feat of endurance which he undertook 50-odd years ago :

He headed off at 5 o’clock one morning, in an attempt to become the first person to ski non-stop from Mt.Bogong to Mt.Hotham in a day.

It was a monumental challenge. He needed to cover a 62km course that climbed almost nine thousand feet.

Disregarding the notoriously fickle weather and the blinding rain which began to pelt down about midday, Charlie’s determination was such that he decided against seeking shelter. What was turning into a blizzard became progressively worse, making visibility poor and the snow sluggish.

Near the top of Mary’s Slide – in darkness – and only 10 minutes from the inhabited Rolla Hut on Mount Hotham, he collapsed.

When his body was discovered the next morning his skis were found 400m away.

He had missed his goal by one kilometre.

The Charlie Derrick Cross-Country event was instituted in his honour the following year . Ben is chuffed to have taken it out on several occasions…………

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“Skiing’ s an individual sport,” says Ben. “In fact I’m a little bit envious of Chris, who was able to pursue his cricket ambitions and played in the Canberra A-Grade competition for many years.”

“He developed into an accurate medium-pace swing bowler and, although he never actually got a game, was a member of the Canberra Comets squad which contested the Mercantile Mutual national one-day series during the nineties.”

“The level of work that’s required to reach the top in skiing is mind-boggling,” he explains. “I was probably a bit fortunate that my body could cope with the physical requirements and that I was able to recover well.”

“Cross-country skiing is brutal. I’d liken it to competing in one-day bike races.”img_2791

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Ben was recognised as Australia’s number one junior in 1992, and competed in the World Junior Championships in the Czech Republic the following year. He broke into the Australian Senior team in 1994 and held his place for the next 12 years. From 1999 onwards, he was ranked the nation’s top skier.

He must surely have been at his peak in 2000, when he cleaned up Australian titles in the 10km Classic, 15km Freestyle and 42km Freestyle events. He also won his first Kangaroo Hoppet and finished a close second in Canada’s Keskinada Loppet, the first time an Aussie had placed in a Northern Hemisphere Loppet event.

It earned him the gong as Australia’s Cross-Country Skier of the Year.

Surely, I ponder, he must have been dead unlucky to miss selection in at least one Olympic Games squad.img_2790

“I was pretty close a couple of times,” he says. ” I finished 57th in a field of about 100 in the World Titles in Finland – three spots behind the reigning World champ. Had I beaten him, I would probably have been selected at the 2006 Turin Games. It was really an antiquated selection system and it has now been changed.”

Being named in two ‘Shadow’ Olympic squads was some consolation, but his overall record is pretty darned impressive.

With 16 National titles to his name and having contested four World Championships, he has skied in around 25 countries.

“I missed out on Japan,” he says. “I’d have loved to compete there.”

One of his career highlights was his performance in the 50km Konig-Ludwig Lauf marathon at the German resort, Oberammergan in 2004.

Here’s a brief excerpt and a fantastic insight to the race, through Ben’s eyes:

“……I have prepared well for this, even pedantically….For about a week I have been thinking of little else ……I just want the gun to go and get out of here……Finally -BANG! The gate goes up and I move as fast as I can……The race is a mass of sprinting skiers………..”

“The first 5km undulate slightly up and down the valley. The pace is on. The lead pack becomes 30, then 25, then 20……….”

“We rotate the lead for the next 10km. The pack becomes three and I’m feeling pretty strong…..”

“The last 15km are dead flat and skiers require a high threshold. This is my forte and I crank it up. My entire focus becomes the two skiers in front of me……..With 6km to go – ‘trouble’!  Cramps in my legs. I move to the front and try to look strong. Luckily the cramps ease a little…….”

“One km to go. We are all getting edgy because we have all busted ourselves for 50km and know the race will be decided a few metres from the line……Roelli moves ahead with 300m to go. We are near the stadium, the crowd is going crazy and we are smoking. I can’t look behind but I know Stitzl is there somewhere. Everything starts to burn. We turn into the final straight. Four lanes and 100m to go…..”

“I move as fast as I can…..Roelli isn’t getting any closer. I think he’s got it. I can sense a skier on my right….Noooooo….There’s the line, come on hamstrings and luuuunnnngggggeee……Second. Yeee-haaaa!!!!……”

“All three of us are mobbed by people…It seems like the last two hours of intense focus and determination are over in a heart-beat with one mad sprint…………”

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Ben has also taken out 4 Kangaroo Hoppet titles. The race, which is held annually at Fall’s Creek is a 42km test of endurance, and is part of the Worldloppet series. He is now the Race Director of the event.

“I can tell you, it’s a lot easier to win it than organise it,” he says.

He is now employed as the Director of Economic Development and Land Management at Fall’s Creek – a role which manages to combine his love of the environment and ties in with his sporting passion.img_2792

Ben has managed to sneak in a few games of cricket in the Wodonga Association ( now CAW) with Mount Beauty, but, with a lot of time constraints, has been unable to commit regularly.   Chris, who moved to the town seven years ago, has also played on and off over the years, and appeared in a couple of A-Grade games this season.

It’s been a fascinating journey for the boy from Boweya. I’d vote for him as Rovers-United’s finest sporting export…………..

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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