A PASSION FOR COACHING……….

They’re swarming in. One minute there’s nary a soul at Appin Park ; half an hour later the place is teeming. And they’re all shapes and sizes, Kids, clad in the black and teal green tops of the local Little Aths club range in age from five to early teens.

It’s Friday night. Welcome to Wangaratta’s athletics nursery.

Half your luck if you’re a new-arrival, trying to identify one of yours amidst the 220-odd kids who are competing in a number of disciplines.

The couple of hundred parents (and grandparents) are either trackside, intently urging on one of their brood………..or nonchalantly chatting on the bank, completely oblivious to all of the action.

You cast your eye over the kids that flash by and note that some are naturals, and have the style and technique to be champs of the future, should they persist. Others who trail the leaders by lengths, push on. They’re not blessed with sporting genes, but that’s okay, you admire their doggedness and willingness to compete.

It’s a non-stop maelstrom of running and jumping……….Somebody said it’s organised chaos ! I reckon they do a good job to get through the events in the allotted time……..

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Somewhere in there, the Club’s three Training and Education coaches are going about their business. To have people of their calibre volunteering their time primarily because they just love coaching and helping kids, is the epitome’ of what sport’s all about. It’s worth jotting down their credentials:

# In her 13 trips to the time-honoured Stawell Athletic Carnival, Anna Pasquali has finished runner-up three times in the women’s 400m. She was close to Australian selection as a junior middle-distance runner and just missed out on a Commonwealth Games relay squad. In recent years she has played her part in re-invigorating the Wang. Carnival, by attempting to get more kids involved in events.

# Peter Hoggan was the ninth-ranked Australian high-jumper, behind Tim Forsyth, in 1999/2000. He returned from the 2000 Australian Youth Olympics with Gold Medals from the U.17 400m and 4 x 400m relay. His performances in the National All-Schools titles qualified him for the 2002 World Juniors  in Jamaica.

# Bree Spasojevic competed with considerable success in a string img_1976of State under-age championships, held several state records and was part of a Victorian team which won Silver  at the National Little Athletics titles in Adelaide .

Competing as a 14-year-old at the Australian All-Schools championships in 1993, she obtained Gold in the U.17 4 x 400m , and Bronze in the U15 4 x 100m relays..

Two years later, again at the National  ‘All-Schools’ , she won individual  Bronze  in the U.17 100m Hurdles and another bronze in the 4 x 400 U.17 relay .

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My memory is of young Bree cleaning up in a number of North-East and Riverina img_1978events during the nineties. I catch up with her, and quiz her on what has, these days, become a  heavy coaching schedule. She explains simply:

“I just want to re-pay athletics for all the good times that I had. I love teaching and it gives me a real thrill to see kids striving to improve themselves “.

“Hopefully I can pass on some of the values and lessons that I’ve learnt. If the kids get this message, then I’ve succeeded. To me, everyone’s journey in life is special.”

The world of track and field was a key component of her life, from the age of 7, until she headed off to Melbourne to undertake her university degree. Even when she was competing, she harboured a fascination for the art of coaching.

She was invited to partake in Debbie Flintoff-King’s Talent Squad, both as an athlete and coach, and attended a week-long session at the AIS through Debbie’s program in 1994.

You detect her deep admiration for the Olympic champ. They have remained firm friends. It was also through the DKF ‘Olympic Gold’ Camps that she met Echuca-based coach Russell Parsons, who had a profound influence on her. The two remain in close contact twenty years on.

She adheres to the Parsons coaching mantra that……”You can be an outstanding athlete for a few exciting years, but it’s more important to be an outstanding person for the rest of your life.”

Bree graduated from RMIT Bundoora in 2002, with a distinction as a Bachelor of Applied Science (Physical Education), and returned to her old school, Wangaratta High, as a teacher.

The sky was the limit. Now she’d able to live out her dream.

She was teaching junior and middle school Phys.Ed and thrived on the interaction with the kids in the two years she spent in the role. But other aspects of the job got to her and she was flattened by a succession of health issues.

Bree would be the first to admit that, when she was at a low ebb, the thought of throwing herself into sporting groups and imparting her knowledge sometime in the future, seemed incongruous.

But that’s what happened. Firstly it was coaching netball, with Glenrowan, then the Rovers, where she used her background in fitness, agility and speed enhancement to good effect.

She resumed her association with Little Aths in 2011. Since 2012 she has coached her own junior development squad – youngsters whose parents have asked her to oversee their progress. They meet twice weekly, in preparation for events at regional, state and national level.

So Bree’s full-on week comprises training on Tuesday and Thursday,  then taking the relay teams for training for about an hour on Friday, before Little Aths gets into full swing.

Additionally, her Netball coaching commitments each Wednesday night  will resume early in the New Year

A couple of years ago, her good friend Russell Parsons invited her to accompany a coaching group to the Southern Indian city of Kottayam. He had been making regular visits, to the Pallikoodam school, where he supervised an athletics and swimming program.img_1977

It was intensive stuff, and Bree took over the athletics side of things.

“It was a memorable trip,” she recalls. “It gave me a greater appreciation of life, meeting such, beautiful, caring, focused, dedicated and friendly people. They’re thankful for what they have – even if they don’t have much.”

In recent weeks, some of her group have competed at State level in both Primary and Secondary level, with considerable success.

Bree has plenty of fans and I met one with plenty of sporting experience, who was only too keen to pump her up:

“She’s got a sound technical knowledge and has had the experience at a high level to back it up. And she can put herself in the youngsters shoes. Bree’s got the knack of letting the kids be kids – and she makes sure they enjoy themselves.”

“I’ve seen a few who weren’t doing anything much when they first came to her, but because she made it fun for them, they improved. She focuses on them trying to better their PB’s, more so than winning events. The results are there to see.”

” I admire the passion she displays, and the energy she puts into her coaching. It’s obvious that she gets as much out of it as the kids.”

Her working days are spent at Treat’s Coffee Shop and, with her coaching commitments, it doesn’t leave much spare time for Bree Spasojevic.

But that’s the way she likes it………..

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SENTIMENTAL FAVOURITE GETS THE CHOCOLATES…

Walter Pasquali wears a permanent grin on his welcoming Continental countenance.

He’s a jolly fellah, Wal. But if his smile could get any broader, it happened on a hot January evening in 1995, when he stormed home to win the Wangaratta Gift.

The sentimental favourite had scorched down the floodlit 120 metre track, to breast the tape in 12.21 seconds, and ignite wild celebrations. Hands held aloft, he commenced probably the longest celebratory journey in Gift history, and finished his ‘lap of honour’ by acknowledging the roar of the crowd in the Richardson Stand.

He still rates it as his finest sporting moment, even though he can entertain you with scores of other anecdotes and highlights of an eventful career which has hummed along for nigh-on 30 years……..

 

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He was brought up on the family’s King Valley tobacco farm, one of three sport-mad kids. An older brother, Anthony, had fulfilled a long-held dream to come in and play footy with the Wang Rovers, where his name was to become indelibly etched into the club’s record books.

Wal was eager to follow suit and in 1985 featured in a Thirds’ premiership, alongside players of the calibre of Mick Wilson,  Howard Yelland and Rick Marklew.

His progress was steady. A lengthy apprenticeship in the Reserves included a Runner-up Best & Fairest trophy in 1987 and universal recognition as a terrific clubman.

A smaller edition of the lean, versatile ‘Pas’, he was mainly a winger, with pace to burn and a lethal left boot and was rewarded with 3 senior games in 1987, Laurie Burt’s first year of coaching.

“Wal’s bubbly personality helped create a positive vibe around the club. Everyone loved him.” Burt said.

“But I wasn’t in his good books one Thursday night when I announced the side and left him out. The next thing we heard was a loud bang. Wal had taken his frustrations out on the toilet door. I pointed out to the boys, that’s how much it means to him to play senior footy.”

It was on the suggestion of a team-mate, Nick Goodear, that Wal decided to have a crack at foot-running. The extra edge in pace would, he believed, be the weapon that would earn him a permanent senior spot.

But disaster struck, in the guise of a damaged knee early in the 1988 season, which required a full reconstruction and effectively put the kibosh on a footy career which was really only just starting to crank up.

And, as his rehab progressed, so did the thoughts that he might focus on running. He was working as an electrical sub-contractor at the time, doing plenty of training under wise old Bernie Grealy and finding an adrenalin-rush in his adopted sport.

Within eighteen months he was lining up in the final of the illustrious Stawell Gift, on Easter Monday, 1990. It was to be the year of the brilliant West Australian Dean Capobianco, who blitzed a field which included two other eventual ‘Stawell’ winners.

Nerves got to Wal, who finished sixth . But he was richer for the experience.

For the next five years or so he was super-competitive, despite running off a tight mark. Always explosive off the blocks, he won successive Broadford Gifts, and took out the 70m events at Werribee, Bendigo and Broadford (twice).

During a big 1993 campaign, he finished fourth in the coveted Bendigo 1000, and was invited to contest Jupiter’s Gift in Queensland, where he ran a close second. He was fourth in the final of Adelaide’s rich Bay Sheffield Gift, regarded as second only to Stawell on the pro running calendar.

To top the season off, he took out the time-honoured Burramine Gift. So, with those sort of performances, there was little wonder that the handicapper was always scrutinising him closely.

He was flying in early 1995 and began to focus on the Wang Carnival even more intensely after his win in the Rye Gift two weeks prior.

“It meant a lot to me to run well at Wang, in front of my home crowd.  Mum and Dad, who didn’t usually attend the Carnival, were there, all my mates were egging me on and I felt good in the lead-up to the Final,” he recalled.

So how did it feel, Wal, when the ground lights were turned off, the floodlights were trained on the Gift track and commentator Eddie Bush gave your resume’ as you paraded down that familiar stretch of turf, just minutes before the big event ?

“I was pretty sure I’d do OK. It was all about getting away to a good start, which I did, and I was determined to catch the front-marker, Adrian Campagna, who was another local, by the 60-metre mark, then peg back the other blokes in front of me.”

” I’ve never run faster than I did that night and when I got to Phil Harloff, the Albury runner, I knew I was home. There was about a metre in it in at the finish. And then the celebrations started……..”

Wally started to experience trouble with his achilles the following season and it became a continual battle to get his body right.

But he kept running and his love of training and competing remained as strong as ever.

One ritual he maintained was his journey to Stawell every Easter. It was there that his romance with a star 400m runner, physiotherapist and his future wife, Anna Deery, blossomed.

Anna had been close to Australian selection as a junior, restricted only by a navicular foot injury. She was later in contention for a spot in the 400 relay squad for the Commonwealth Games, being rated No.5 in the squad and narrowly missing a spot.

So, with a mutual love of athletics, they had plenty to offer Wangaratta sport when they moved back here in 2009.

Wal re-ignited his considerable passion for the Brown and Gold and has helped out in several capacities. Of particular assistance has been his work in fitness and conditioning. He is held in high regard by the Hawk playing group.

Greg O’Keeffe, who has seen all of the top local runners come and go over the years, rates Anna as one of the hardest female trainers he has seen. She has a zest for junior development and is heavily involved with Little Aths.

Their contribution to the Athletic Club has increased by the year, both by sponsorship through their Optus business and their considerable physical input.

The whole Pasquali brood – Wal, Anna and the kids, Christian, Isabella and Sofia – will be competing this Saturday, when the Carnival kicks off.

And Wal will be forgiven a touch of nostalgia when the finalists are asked to take their marks for the running of the 95th Wangaratta Gift…..It’s 20 years ago, the butterflies are in the tummy and he’s the second back-marker… Oh,what a memory that is……….

 

 

FOOTNOTE:   The other Wangaratta winners of their local Gift have been: Maurice Maroney (1930), A.W.Whittaker (1938), Frank Seymour (1947), Jimmy Doolan (1958), Greg O’Keeffe (1985), Jason Boulton (1997 and 2006).
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