“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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