“THE SPORT-MAD KID WHO MADE THE GRADE……….”

Tony Fisher was a sporting prodigy of the sensational seventies……….

At the age of 17 he already had three seasons of A-Grade WDCA cricket under his belt…….had represented Victorian Country in Basketball……and was an irresistible junior football talent – that is, when he wasn’t tearing around bush tracks on his motor-bike……..

His mum Shirley recalls his Galen College teacher, Br. Gerard, stating the obvious at a parent/ teacher interview: “I’ll put Tony on a pedestal for sport…..but knock him off it for anything else…..”

Then again, the Fisher siblings were all blessed with talent…….The eldest , Peter, was a more than handy footballer, and Tony’s four sisters – Leanne, Kathy, Jane and Jackie – wore the country ‘Big V’ in Under-Age National Basketball Carnivals……..

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Their dad, Jimmy, was one of those real characters you come across in sport. He played footy for the Rovers and Greta and, at the tail-end of his long career, took on the coaching job at North Wangaratta.

North were battling along in the Benalla & District League at this stage, and one of the long treks they used to undertake was to play at Tatong, in the rain, hail and fog.

“Apparently snow also fell at half-time in this particular game,” Tony says. “Visibility was poor and conditions were appalling, but North snuck home in the dying minutes to record their second win of the season……Dad took the boys to the Tatong pub to celebrate, but unfortunately it was closing early that night because of a wedding ….”

“They scored an invite to the wedding, had supper, then went back to the pub, and continued on ‘til all hours…..”

“Overwhelmed by the hospitality of the locals, they arrived home on Tuesday…..”

Jimmy kept wickets for Greta until he was in his late fifties, and Tony remembers his parents dragging the 6 kids along to games ever since he could crawl.

“I started taking my gear when I was 10 or 11, in the hope that the opposition might be short and could need a ‘sub’ in the field.

“I was in the deep one day (subbing for West End, I think) when John Tanner skied a pull shot…..I ran around, dived, and caught it on the boundary……..That was the end of me fielding against Greta…..”

‘Nirvana’ for Jimmy, was relaxing after a game, over several quiet ales and sharing tall tales and true with team-mates like Tanner, Max ‘Pigsy’ Newth, Richie Shanley and ‘Jackie’ Corker.

“It was cut-short one night when someone mentioned that a few ducks had been sighted on a nearby dam…..That was enough for Dad…..He grabbed his gun out of the car, and started to head off with ‘Newthy’…

“Mum complained in vain: ‘You can’t go….the kids have got school in the morning…”

“She got up the next day, looked out of the kitchen window, and here’s Dad fossicking around in the garden, still in his mud-splattered whites……She’s never found out, to this day, how he got home….”

“He always reckoned that was the only day he ever made a duck and shot a duck……”

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At 14, Tony played junior cricket with United on Saturday mornings, lined up with their senior side in the afternoon, then stripped with Greta – alongside his Dad and elder brother in the Sunday competition.

He was a right-arm quickie and dashing left-hand bat, and has the distinction of winning the WDCA’s inaugural junior Cricketer of the Year Award in 1975/76. He also guided United to the flag, with 108 and 5/27 in the Final.

On the same week-end, his 8/46 helped Greta win a WSCA Semi…….

His arrival in senior ranks could have been better-timed, as United’s unprecedented run of dominance was drawing to a close…… he missed the opportunity to share in an A-Grade flag. As a tireless youngster, he bowled with pace and accuracy, and could swing the ball both ways – often in tandem with wily left-armer Geoff Welch.

His blood boiled over against the Rovers one day, however…..

Tim Carr had nudged along into the nineties and was seeing the ball like a water-melon…..In exasperation, he ran in and bowled one ball left-handed to the unsuspecting right-hander…

“ Tim said to old Freddie Larkin, the umpire: ‘Did you see that ?’…… Freddie gave me a nice old serve…”

“Geoff Welch was a big help to me in my cricket…….In fact, he and Geoff Lacey, who was my first football coach, were the two greatest influences on my sporting career….”

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At this stage, with his involvement in cricket, basketball and motor-bikes he hadn’t given much thought to football…..His cousin, Russell Harris, suggested: ‘Why don’t you come out to Greta and see how you go ?”

“I played my first game in the 2’s……For two quarters……. then they ripped me off and put me in the Seniors….I really enjoyed it…….once I got into it I took to it like a duck to water…”

He was going on 18, and played the remainder of the season, as Greta stormed into the Grand Final.

“We had a terrific side – Paul O’Brien had returned from the Rovers; Dessy Steele was still starring….we had ‘Gunner’ Williams, Barry Tanner, Geoff Lacey was a brilliant leader, and there was a fella called Leigh Candy, who virtually walked in off the street….”

“He was an off-beat sort of bloke….He’d come in at half-time and smoke a pipe……but he was an absolute ripper….”

“He didn’t get a touch early in the Grand Final….. I remember ‘Lace’ dressing him down, and he replied : ‘My yings and my yangs are not working properly……..’Lace’ said: ‘Well get your yings and yangs in line.”

“He did just that; kicked five goals after half-time and we knocked Whorouly over by 29 points…..The only problem for me was that I got rubbed out for a couple of weeks for striking Alan ‘Cocker’ McNeil….”

Geoff Lacey suggested that Tony would ‘walk’ into Ovens and Murray footy…….So he went in to have do a pre-season with Wangaratta, and performed well in three practice matches.

The Pies were keen to test him in the Reserves when the season got under way, but Greta were adamant – they’d only supply Match Permits if he played Seniors.

He decided to stay at Greta but, as luck would have it, missed the majority of the season with Glandular Fever………

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Basketball played a huge part in the lives of the Fisher clan……Tony’s arrival on the scene came at a time when the game was possibly at its peak in Wangaratta.

“The ring in the backyard at home used to get a decent work-out and the girls were mad-keen…….It was our life……I started at Hustlers, moved on to Gotsims, (where he won a competition B & F), then coached Wranglers when I was about 20…..”

“A car-load of us – Ronnie Graham, Phil Dent, Rod Orton, Steve Harries, Greg Canny and myself – used to travel up to play in the Myrtleford comp each Wednesday night……called ourselves the Myrtleford Tigers…”

The friendships he formed with several Myrtleford footballers who were also involved, influenced Tony’s decision to play with the Saints in 1982.

“They lined up a job for me with Myrtleford Tyre and Battery and I lived up there. I had a terrific time at Myrtleford. The guys were so tight and the families really looked after us,” he says.

The highlight, no doubt, was his second season, when the Cinderella Saints came from second-bottom to almost pinch a Grand Final spot.

They were helped, of course, by the recruitment of Gary Ablett a couple of rounds into the ‘83 season…..

“We’d heard whispers about him coming, but it was a fantastic atmosphere when he turned up at training for the first time….”

“I remember his first game, on the Rovers’ ground……A few minutes in, our coach Greg Nicholls was poised for a mark at centre half forward, when Gazza climbed all over his back to take a screamer….”

“Next minute Greg yelled out to the runner, Sam Holmes: ‘Sam….Sam..get out here…Ablett to the centre…..I don’t want him on my bloody back all day….”

“He kicked a goal that they still talk about, from 80 metres out, to help us beat North Albury in the First Semi….”

The Saints trailed by 22 points with seven minutes remaining when the Ablett heroics unfolded. They took the game out by 4 points.

The following week, a battle-royal with Albury unfolded . Ablett was again the dynamo in a tough, spiteful clash.

“It’d been close all day….But the turning-point came when one of the Doolan’s ( who was injured and wasn’t playing) ran out and clocked a Myrtleford player. We lost concentration after that, and went down narrowly,” Tony recalls.

“It was a hell of a side….Bobby McNamara, ‘Chad’ Light, Terry Burgess, Ablett, Peter Ruscuklic and Greg Nicholls all represented the O & M…and Burgess won the Medal….”

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Tony was lured to Canberra the following year, signing on with Ainslie ( Greg Nicholls’ old club), and working with the Electricity Authority, laying underground cables.

Canberra footy suited his game and he starred, playing as a winger, or centreman. He was best-afield in ACT’s inter-state clash against the Mick Nolan-coached Queensland, in Brisbane, but unfortunately, sustained a stress fracture of the lower-back late in the ‘84 season…..He missed Ainslie’s flag triumph.

“A few of us got together the following summer and got ourselves really fit. That, and playing A-Grade cricket with Norths, had me really prepared……I think I played probably the best footy of my career in 1985,” he says.

He again represented the ACT, finished runner-up in Ainslie’s B & F, and the League’s Mulrooney Medal, which helped ease the disappointment of being narrowly beaten by Queanbeyan in the Grand Final…..

Collingwood came knocking, with an invitation to do a pre-season, but Tony and Dianne weren’t keen on heading to Melbourne…….instead, they landed in Adelaide, and he signed with the reigning SANFL premiers, the Graham Cornes-coached Glenelg.

“They were a really settled side……Chris McDermott had the centre tied-up, and Tony Symons and David Kernahan were the incumbent wingers……..It was hard to break into that line-up…..”

“You’d be picking up 30 possessions a week and thinking: ‘Maybe I’m a chance next week….But next week never came…”

He played a handful of senior games, but spent most of his two seasons in the Reserves side, coached by ex-Essendon star Geoff Blethyn.

“We became really good mates, and started up ‘Toil & Soil’ in Adelaide……Then Di and I went out on own, carting rocks out of the Adelaide Hills.”

Tony’s final two seasons of footy in Adelaide were spent with Southern Association club McLaren Vale……….

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When the Fisher’s headed back to Wangaratta, there were dreams of a nostalgic return to Greta, who were now in the hands of his brother-in-law Robbie Richards, and good mate Brett Keir.

But it wasn’t to be….He played two Reserves games, ‘did’ a Driver muscle and that was it. His career was over…….

Tony had brought his Bobcat and Equipment over from Adelaide, and he, Robbie and Len Richards set up Toil & Soil in Wangaratta.

“We did that for two years….Then I came home one night and said to Di: ‘Come on….Let’s pack the bags….we’re going around Australia……Destination Darwin….”

They lived in Darwin for 10 years….Tony worked for a travel company, Billy Can Tours, for a good while, then went out-bush, building camps and working with the indigenous…..”It was great…..I saw country that a lot of white people had never been to……..” he says.

On their arrival home in 2007, they bought a farm at Myrrhee, and Tony began his present job, working with Brown Brothers, at Banksdale……..They also purchased the Milawa Bakery in 2008, which they still operate.

He’s done alright, this sport-mad kid, whose teachers reckoned, was on a path to nowhere………….

“THE TEN CENTIMETRES THAT CHANGED BADEN COOKE’S LIFE…….”

Baden Cooke is holed up at a Malvern Hospital on this bitterly-cold, late June morning.

He’s half a world away from the celebrated Tour de France. …..184 of the finest road cyclists on the planet are about to undertake their 21-day 3,417 km journey through tranquil villages, picture-book hillside scenery and brutish European mountains – accompanied by the usual fanfare, razzmatazz and extensive caravan of hangers-on……..

He occasionally casts his mind back to his involvement in ‘Le Tour’, but for the last four days, Baden’s attention has been focused on the ‘drip’, which has almost cleansed his body of a strain of the dreaded Golden Staph.

He was in the Outback, recording a TV reality show when a small nick on his arm developed into an infection: “Thankfully, I’m on the improve”, he says ……..

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Baden’s a Benalla boy, born and bred.

His passion for the bike game began around the age of 11: “I was a fairly good runner as a little fellah, but once I climbed on a bike I was hooked. Some kids want to be rock stars, champion footballers, or become the Prime Minister…….I just wanted to ride the Tour de France……..”

Baden came to the attention of Barry Burns when he was competing in a Criterium around the streets of Wangaratta.

“There was something about him that I liked,” Burns recalled, “even though he looked like a camel on the bike. He’d obviously never been shown the right way to ride.”

“I told his mum Brenda that if he needed any help I’d always be available. They were on their way back to Benalla when she told him. He wanted to turn around straight away, and come back to see me.”

Cooke, he says, was a “bit of a wild bugger in his younger days, but his biggest asset was his determination.”

When he moved to Wangaratta to complete Years 11 and 12 at Galen College, Baden ‘shakked up’ with Burns, and his family.

Barry Burns is famous in this neck of the woods for rejigging his life after returning, mentally ‘shot’, from the Vietnam War. He spent 11 years in and out of psychiatric wards trying to cope with his ‘demons’ .

A doctor urged him to return to his first love – cycling – as therapy, to help regain his equilibrium. Single-mindedly embarking on a punishing regime of riding 1000km a week, the veteran went on to win the time-honoured ‘Warrnambool’, a ‘King of the Mountain Classic’, and represent Australia at the 1990 World Road titles.

He maintained a strong connection with the sport upon retirement, by taking a few young riders under his wing.

“ Living with ‘Burnsy’ was a real turning-point for me…..” Baden recalls .”He was a hell of a tough coach, and really taught me how to train hard……..He completely changed my cycling direction…..”

His parents had subtly suggested he channel his schooling towards a more normal career: “But when they realised how fair dinkum I was about being a pro they fully supported me.”……..

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Baden went straight from Galen College to take up a scholarship at the Australian Institute of Sport in 1997. His efforts in winning the Bendigo Tour and the National Junior Points Score title the previous year had placed a bullet beside his name.

Locals had become well acquainted from afar, with the surging Cooke career, but rarely got the opportunity to see him ‘in the skin’…….Until the 21 year-old captured their attention at the Wangaratta Carnival of 2000.

“I remember being in pretty good form when I went back. There was always a contingent of dominant track cyclists that headed to Wang in those days……..(Stephen) Pate was the hot-favourite in the Wheelrace Final that year, but he went out way too early, and I managed to get over the top of him.”

“It was a huge thrill.”

He also won a couple of Bendigo Madisons with Pate, then turned pro not long after, signing with American team, Mercury, and pitching headlong into the challenging European tour.

It proved tougher than expected for the Aussie ‘greenhorn’, but wins in the ‘Prix de Bles d’Or’, and the Points Classification in the (USA) Rapport Tour, were highlights of his debut season, besides picking up three stages on the Herald-Sun Tour.

It was his transfer to French team ‘Francaise de Jeux’ in 2002 that catapulted Baden to prominence in the sport’s toughest arena.

His first start in the Tour de France saw him placed fourth in the Points Classification for the ‘Maillot Vert’ (the Green Jersey). “ It gave me confidence that I could compete with the best.”

I ask if he’d had any exposure to the drug-taking that racked the sport in this era.

“There was a lot of it around at the time, of course,” he says. “I never saw it personally, but I knew it was going on. I was just lucky that all of the teams I was involved with were dead-set against it.”

“For instance, FDJ had been caught up in a fair scandal in 1999. By the time I got there they not only encouraged us to be anti-drugs; you were off the team If you took them……………”

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Along with the other top Aussie riders, Cooke went straight from the 2002 Tour de France to Manchester, for the Commonwealth Games. He finished with a Bronze Medal, behind team-mates Stuart O’Grady and Cadel Evans, in the road race.

His ninth placing in the World Road championships gave some indication of his rapid improvement. But his breakout season also included wins in the Paris-Corrèze, the semi-classic Belgian event, Dwars door Vlaanderen, the one-day Tro bro Léon in Brittany, and a fifth placing in the historic Paris-Brussels one-day Classic.

He returned home to take out the Herald-Sun Tour ( as well as picking up two stage wins), to impress upon the Australian public that he was a genuine star .

“That year the Tour went up Mount Hotham and Baw Baw, so it was no walk in the park. I was fairly versatile, I suppose. I didn’t mind those tough races, and sprinting was my forte’.”

The moment Baden Cooke captured the world’s attention came in the Centenary staging of the 2003 Tour de France.

He’d spent time in the White Jersey ( worn by the outstanding young rider Under 26 ), and throughout the Tour had been engaged in a captivating battle with compatriot Robbie McEwan, for the coveted sprint crown.

He’d taken out Stage 2, by outpointing the Frenchman Jean-Patrick Nazon, but McEwan, who’d won the first of his three Points Classifications the previous year, held a slight lead over Cooke, as they rode into Paris, on the Champs-Élysées. The Aussies had held a stranglehold on the Green Jersey for all but one stage of the race.

“It was extremely stressful, that final day,” Baden recalled. “I was pretty exhausted, and felt the weight of the world on my shoulders.”

“On the first intermediate sprint I beat Robbie, to equalise the Points…….Then he won the second Intermediate, to take back the lead…….So it basically boiled down to who crossed the line first………..”

“There was nothing in it……..It didn’t register that I’d won…….It was only when Robbie came up, shook hands and said: ‘Congratulations, you’ve won it’ that it sunk in.”

He had clinched the Green Jersey by two points.

“Put it this way, the 10 centimetres I won by, changed my life forever. I felt blessed that I’d achieved my childhood dream……….”

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Baden finished 12th in the Tour’s Points Classification in 2004, and headed to his first Olympics as a member of the powerful Road team, comprising Robbie McEwan, Stuart O’Grady, Michael Rodgers and Matt White.

“I didn’t really fire, but I was basically working for the team. I think Robbie McEwan finished 11th…..It was an amazing experience, though.”

After his fourth Tour de France, Baden switched from FDJ to Unibet in 2006, then rode the 2008 Tour in the Barloworld colours.

He moved to Vacansoleil in 2009, then Saxo Bank for two seasons, before joining Orica-GreenEDGE In 2012.

“It was a thrill to get into the Australian-owned team. It had been a dream of mine for that to occur…..I didn’t think it’d be in my lifetime……Then Gerry Ryan came along and it happened……I jumped straight on board…..”

He wore the GreenEDGE colours for two years, including the 2012 Tour de France, but announced his retirement the following year, when he didn’t score a contract with a WorldTour team.

After more than 50 professional race wins – many of them on the tough Continental cycling calandar- it was all over.

“I was 35, and had ridden in the peloton for just on 14 years. Sponsors were tightening their belts at that time. A few teams departed and a lot of top riders were forced out,” he says.

“It was a hard life being a pro cyclist. For 95 per cent of the time it’s not very glamorous……You’ve gotta live and breathe the sport, and you certainly can’t do it half-heartedly……If you don’t love it you just can’t do it……”

Along with many of the world’s top riders, Baden had been living in Monaco for most of the time he’d been a pro, . He decided to move into Sports Management when the curtain came down on his career.

He held a stake in Factor Bikes and Black Inc wheels ( which he’s now sold), but is still involved in Sports Management. Now based in Melbourne, he and his brother Marcus operate a computer networking and engineering company, Hamilton Cooke Network.

Baden gets back to the North-East fairly often. His parents still live there, and he loves the area, .

“I ride the High Country Challenge most years, and I’m good friends with a lot of the boys.”

“Actually, I haven’t ridden my bike for about three months, but I’m looking forward to going out this week-end……….”says one of Benalla’s finest sporting products.

‘OLD CHAMP SHOWS HER CLASS…….’

It’s Australia Day, 1981………..

A young university graduate has just landed in Wangaratta to take up an appointment as a Phys. Ed teacher at St.Joseph’s School. Being no slouch as a tennis player, she ‘sniffs out’ the ANA tournament which appears to be reaching its climax on this sweltering afternoon.

She’s immediately taken by the cavernous surrounds of Merriwa Park; its oasis of parkland……playgrounds….neat wooden clubhouse…..and diligently-manicured grass courts……

She spots Ken Wurtz, a familiar face from her home-town of Wagga Wagga, and is soon being introduced to a host of welcoming locals.

Little do they realise it, but the slim, athletic 21 year-old they are meeting is to eventually re-write the record books of the Wangaratta Lawn Tennis Club……….

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Michelle Hill won her 13th WLTC  A-Grade Singles Championship a fortnight ago; 23 years after her last – and a staggering 38 years on from the first title she collected upon joining the Club.

For good measure, she also picked up her 13th Doubles crown – this time with one of her old pupils, Georgia Allen – to add to the 5 Mixed Doubles championships she has shared.IMG_4005

Some say she’s the Club’s greatest-ever. That’s always a contentious subject when comparing different eras…… But there’s no doubt that she’s been one helluva player………….

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Sport runs deep in the Berrigan family.

Michelle’s dad, Tom, played international Rugby Union for Australia, and was a dynamic centre and full back for Wagga Brothers throughout a lengthy career. When his five kids started coming through, they were conditioned to spending hours around Rugby, and tennis, where Tom also was an A-Grade player.

Although their mum Helen didn’t have a sporting bone in her body, she loved watching it.

“Dad owned a Shoe Shop when we were growing up, and couldn’t get away of a Saturday morning,” Michelle says.

“I remember, my older brothers, Anthony and Lou, were playing Junior cricket at one stage, and didn’t have anyone to look after their team. So mum read up all the rules and became their Coach/Manager, besides keeping the other three of us under control. She was a really encouraging person, and the kids responded to her.”

“It delighted her when they won the premiership over the other sides which were so well-organised. It also helped, I suppose, that Geoff Lawson ( the future Test quickie ) was part of the team.”

“It’s funny, even though mum was no good at sport, she could watch me playing tennis and give me clues about flaws in my opponents’ game. She was never far from the mark, either………”

“Mum loved sewing, and made all my tennis clothes. She died two years ago, and not long before that, I was lucky enough to spend some time with her. I lay down beside her, watching the Australian Open. She was more interested in discussing the girls’ dresses than who looked like winning……”

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Michelle was always obsessed with tennis. “Dad used to coach my older brothers, and I’d be hanging around making a nuisance of myself, standing at the back of the courts and hitting back the balls they missed.”

“I pleaded with Dad to let me play, but he was adamant that he wouldn’t let me start until I’d turned 10.”IMG_4014

The Berrigans lived around the corner from Wagga’s Tennyson Park courts, and had a key to the club-house.

“We used to practice all the time. The people over the road from the courts loved it. They said we provided their entertainment.”

She won her first Tennyson Park A-Grade title at 12; and the first of five-straight City of Wagga A-Grade singles the following year.

In one of her earlier tournaments, her dad took her over to play at Deniliquin. Wally Rutter, the coach who helped chart Margaret Court’s rise to fame, saw her in action and wrote to her parents, suggesting that if they’d permit Michelle to move to Sydney to be coached by him – and stay with his family – he’d make her a champion.

“Mum didn’t show me the letter until years later, but said there was no way they were going to let me leave home at such a young age,” Michelle says.

Once she began playing age-group competitions, she took all before her, winning U15, U16 and U17 NSW hardcourt titles, along with the State U17 and U18 grass-court events.

After playing in successive NSW Wilson Cup teams, she finished third in the 1979 National U19 championships in Brisbane, and represented Australia at the World Students’ Games in Mexico City.IMG_4013

When she headed to play in the U.S Open Junior titles, Michelle was ranked Australia’s number 3 junior; seeded in the world’s top 20.

Unlike most of the top Australian juniors, though, she chose to complete her Tertiary Education in Sydney before making a serious decision on her future.

She reached the semi-finals of the Australian Open qualifiers in 1977, aged 17, before being knocked out by the veteran Judy Dalton

She was back home in Wagga the following January, when she received late advice that she’d again been accepted into the Qualifying Rounds.

“I said to Dad: ‘’I’m in.’ ‘Righto, then, I’ll take you down. We’ll leave as soon as I shut the shop at 9pm.’”

“We got down to our motel in Melbourne about 1.30am. I was supposed to be at Kooyong to register by 10am that morning, so I arrived, stood in a queue behind some foreigners, who were trying to book practice courts and were having considerable difficulty communicating.”

“By the time I got to the window to register, the fellah in the office said: ‘You’re too late; it’s two minutes past 10. You’re out of the tournament.’ “

“I was in tears, and I thought Dad was about to ‘do his block’. He went over to nearby Glenferrie Oval and ran a few laps, to calm down……….Then we jumped in the car and headed back to Wagga…….”

But by the time Michelle had finished uni, she was pretty sure the pro circuit wasn’t for her.

“I don’t think I was suited to the ‘dog-eat-dog’ atmosphere. I really enjoyed playing, but deep down, never thought I was quite good enough,” she says.

I compare the course taken by Amanda Tobin, with whom she had a strong rivalry through junior ranks, and suggest that she’d have no doubt made her mark. Tobin created an impression on the WTA tour, and was once ranked number 58 in the world.

“Yes, it would have been nice to find out how far you could go,” she says, “…..but I’m more than happy with the path I took………..”

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Armed with a Bachelor of Education ( with first class honours ), Michelle had little trouble adapting to life as a teacher in Wangaratta.

In fact, there weren’t too many idle moments, as she taught P.E all day, coached tennis most nights, and played all week-end.

When the two single-sex local Catholic colleges merged, she began her 36-year association with Galen College. Eventually, a romance blossomed with fellow teacher Peter Hill, whom she married in 1984.

Of all the WLTC titles she won, she’s proudest of the two Mixed Doubles championships she shared with Pete – the first of which came in 1988.

“I was a cricketer, and only took up tennis when I started going with Michelle,” Pete jokes. “She’d say: ‘You serve, and then get out of the way. I’ll do the rest.’ “

One of the many youngsters Michelle coached – Kate McDonald – also shared a Club Doubles title with her in 1984, and an ANA Doubles the following year.

Kate later spent some years on the pro circuit, and at one stage achieved a world Doubles ranking of 103. Upon retirement, she then embarked on her own coaching career.

Susan Batey, another of the array of talented youngsters in that era, shared seven ANA Open Doubles titles with Michelle. The pair also travelled to Melbourne, to play State Pennant tennis with Caulfield – and later, Dendy Park.IMG_4007

Wangaratta’s Australia Day tournament – the plum tennis event in the local area – gave Michelle the opportunity to prove her mettle against some quality players. She prevailed in the Open Singles nine times.

She also got a kick out of representing Wangaratta in inter-association tennis, and helped to guide the Club to the Goulburn Valley Pennant in 1994.IMG_4017

It was the lure of playing Team Tennis that prompted Michelle and Pete to head over to Wahgunyah, to play in the Corowa & District Association in the mid-nineties.

“John Voss, a good friend, persuaded us to go over. It was great fun.”

By then, their two kids, Jack and Harry, were starting to move through the sporting ranks, and following their progress became a priority.

“It was brought home to me when I came off the court whilst playing State Grade pennant in Melbourne. Pete rang me from Wangaratta, to tell me that Jack had kicked his first goal in Under 7 soccer. I felt terrible that I’d missed it and decided ‘that was that’. I was going to follow their sport from then on.”

“So I became a Soccer Registrar, secretary of Wang- Magpies Cricket Club , soccer Team Manager,  cricket scorer, and then we watched the boys playing footy for a few years.”

Jack, a Lawyer, and Harry, a Doctor, are now both  heavily involved with their own careers and families.

It was only recently that Michelle and Pete decided to pick up the racqets again and play competitively, after a lengthy sabbatical. They took it on with renewed enthusiasm, and there’s no reason to suggest they won’t hang them up any time soon.

Maybe there’s time for another few titles for the unassuming veteran…….

Footnote: Michelle competed in the 55-and Over event at the Oceania Masters, staged at Kooyong last week-end. After an effortless win over a Russian player, she met No.2 seed, Jill Meggs.  After a marathon, which lasted 3 hours 22 minutes, she went down 7/6 in the third set tie-breaker……..

 

 

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HARD WORK PRODUCES RESULTS FOR GOLDEN GIRL

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.”

 

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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.

 

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