‘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……..

‘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…………..