‘BUSH BOY REFLECTS ON A LIFE OF SKIING…….’

(By Guest Blogger Simone Kerwin)

Dick Walpole was a teen-ager the first time he took a day-trip to the snow.

The experience left an indelible impression on the boy from the bush and culminated in him becoming a Winter Olympian in 1960.

His passion for skiing, and zest for imparting his considerable knowledge, recently earned him a Snow Australia Medal……..

The initiative, launched by the national body, recognises the achievements and careers of past ( and retiring ) athletes who represented Australia at the highest level of the sport.

Along with alpine skier Peter Brockhoff and nordic combined exponent Hal Nerdal, cross-country star Dick was honoured in the most recent batch of medal recipients ……….

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Dick’s going on 93, and spends his daylight hours pottering around the Whorouly South farm, where he has spent most of his life, and which is now operated by his son Paul. “My job is to keep an eye on the cattle. But I’m not a very hard-worker these days…. I’ve just about run out of gas.”

He casts his mind back to the day he was coaxed to join his cousin Roy on a day-trip to Mount St.Bernard. He was 16.

“We’d walked over to see the snow on the hills a few times before, but that was my first real experience of skiing,” he recalls.

His main previous sporting involvement had come through cycling and playing football with Whorouly. “Once I took up skiing, though, footy went on the back-burner.”

“My passion was ignited. From then on I became a regular visitor to the snowfields. We used to hire equipment from the Mount Buffalo Chalet……. then I started to make my own skis.”

“I loved the fresh air, the atmosphere and the scenery. I was always interested in geography, so I took particular note of the rivers and the terrain we were covering.”

Then he started racing. He tried downhill skiing at first, mainly because he hadn’t perfected how to turn.

He became enthusiastic about ski technique and physiology, soaking up whatever he could from books, and from some European instructors who had visited Australia.

“I was really interested in the Allais technique (developed by French Olympian Emile Allais, who is dubbed the ‘father of modern skiing’).”

“It doesn’t matter how fit you are, if your technique is not right, you’re in trouble,” Dick says.

Competing predominantly with the Myrtleford Ski Club, he also contested Wangaratta Club races, but skiing rules dictated that representatives from another Club were ineligible to win an event.

Wangaratta High School teacher Bruce Osbourne was also a major influence, and encouraged Dick to focus on cross-country skiing.”

“He was my mentor; an enthusiastic skier who was always encouraging me to take up that discipline.”

“We were at the National Championships in Tasmania, where I was competing in the Downhill and Slalom events for Victoria. I was going badly after slipping on some ice and losing my nerve.”

“I muttered something like: ‘If I had a pair of cross-country skis I’d go in that event’.”

“Bruce straightaway said: ‘Well, I’ve got some skis and boots’. So I competed in the Cross-Country and almost beat him. I finished fourth.”

In his pursuit for fitness Dick absorbed the philosophies of Franz Stampfl, a former skier, and one of the world’s leading athletics coaches, who pioneered the system of Interval Training. Stampfl guided many of the Australian athletes at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics and also assisted Roger Bannister to the first-ever sub four-minute mile.

Dick eventually succeeded in his aim of running 5,000 metres in 15 minutes, and believed his fitness tuned his body for the rigours of skiing.

He went on to become Australia’s top Cross-Country skier, winning the National championships in 1958 and ‘59, which led to his selection for the 1960 Olympics.

He describes wearing the Australian blazer at the opening Ceremony for the Squaw Valley, California, Winter Olympics, and pulling on the National colours, as a humbling experience.

“Apart from competing with a North-East team against a Southern Province team in New Zealand, I’d never been outside Australia.”

“We were an insignificant skiing nation in those days, compared to the Europeans, and the conditions were completely foreign to what I’d grown up with.”

“For instance, our snow was so heavy you could only slide 12 feet. Over there, on that snow, you could slide three ski-lengths – about 18-20 feet. It took a lot of getting used to.”

Dick was the sole Australian representative in the Cross-Country event. The only previous cross-country Australian reps had been Bruce Haslingden and Cedric Sloane, who competed in the Oslo (Sweden) Olympics in 1952.

It was a huge step-up in class for the 32 year-old. He struck white-hot opposition from the Scandinavian contingent, and finished 51st in the 15km event, conducted at Kinney Creek Stadium, in Tacoma.

His attitude was to approach his Olympic event as a Time-Trial.

“My motto was that it didn’t matter what you were competing in, you just did the best you could. I reflect now that by regulating my power I could have done better, but it’s no use grumbling about it……..”

One of his main aims in his trip to the USA, he says, was to absorb as much knowledge as he could, then, on his return, assist local skiers and help to develop the region’s tracks.

“I wanted to get the most out of my time over there, and was conscious of my obligation to represent the Myrtleford Ski Club members and learn as much as I possibly could.”

“So I spent a lot of time coaching when I came back, as well as advising Event Co-Ordinators on course preparation.”

“That was one way of helping the Club out……..”

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After winning another Australian Cross-Country title on his return from the Olympics in the winter of 1960, a hip injury played havoc with Dick’s competitive skiing career.

“It was too dangerous, with my crook hip, to keep skiing. I decided if I went back on the mountain I’d probably catch the bug again.”

Even now, the Myrtleford Ski Club Life-Member and old champ baulks at the thought of returning to the scene of some of his former triumphs.

“My balance is gone….my eyesight is poor…..I’d be in real trouble….”

“I’m certainly happy to have made the friends I did through skiing. I don’t usually rave about my achievements, but I did what I set out to do – and I enjoyed doing it……..

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