Lynch Cooper was a trainer with the Wangaratta Magpies when I first came across him in the late sixties.
To outsiders he was a mere member of the entourage that surrounds any footy club. An ageing, humble and dignified man with, they proclaimed, magic in his hands. The tales of his sporting prowess in the days of yore had become the stuff of legend to those in the know.
This is the Lynch Cooper story…………..
He was born at Moira Lakes, near Tocumwal, in 1905, the son of a prominent Yorta Yorta man and aboriginal activist, William Cooper. Actually, his dad had been named William Wilberforce, but changed his name to Cooper somewhere along the line.
In the ’20’s William, a man of strong principles, formed the Victorian Aboriginal Society, which was the forerunner of the Aboriginal Advancement League. The teen-aged Lynch acted as his secretary , and tried his hand at many other other things, including fishing.
His itinerant parents had moved to Mulwala, where they ran a Fish and Chip shop and Lynch played his part by fishing the Murray River for cod, which would be sold over the counter.
But he had a passion for running. “As a young boy I always wanted to race someone, no matter how big they were. I was a little crank. While other boys preferred to fight , I wanted to race,” he once reflected.
“I won all my events at school and can remember my father telling me after watching me run that I would one day win the great Stawell Gift .”
Despite Lynch’s eagerness to test himself, William Cooper wouldn’t let his son concentrate on running until he turned 21.
So his entry to pro.running came in 1926, and on his debut at the Deniliquin Carnival he took out every sprint race on the program. Excited that they had a champion on their hands, his joint-trainers set him for Stawell and wagered on him accordingly. They were devastated when Lynch lost his heat by inches to the eventual Gift runner-up.
He made 13 finals the following year and was placed in each. This included the Wangaratta Gift, in which he finished a close second to a Queensland policeman, George Bouer.
“I was really disappointed not to have won Wang. It was about the only major Gift in Victoria that I didn’t take out”, he said.
And again Stawell eluded him, even though he was now ranked among the most consistent and successful pro runners in the land.
He set himself to conquer the famous Easter Gift in 1928, gave up his occupation and sold his boat. He had decided that if he wasn’t successful this time he’d hang up his spikes.
Cooper had been in red-hot form that summer and tallied up a list of major Gift wins and placings throughout the country.
He decided to back himself with all the money he could muster. Starting off 8 yards in the final, he ran 4 yards inside evens to pip ‘Peggy’ O’Neill on the line.
He collected 250 pounds and a sash for the win and cleaned out the bookies to the tune of 3000 pounds. “The money didn’t matter at the time. On that day I felt like I owned the world. It will always live long in my memory”, he said years later.
But the money from the bookmakers and the prize-money had certainly changed his financial situation.
He had moved to Wangaratta in the late twenties and was in demand from near and far, as he was a charismatic figure in the athletic community.
Lynch’s successful 1928 saw him win 10 other Gifts and finals besides Stawell and he was selected to contest the world professional sprint championship in Melbourne the following year.
It was a classy field which included Tommy Miles, Tim Banner, Austin Robertson, L.C.Parker and Frank Spurrall, all stars in their own right.
The championship was held over four distances, from 75 yards to 220 yards. When it came to the final race, the experts were predicting that the brilliant Robertson would win the title.
But Cooper held off a strong challenge from the South Melbourne footballer to take the crown and become the first Aboriginal to win a world sporting title.
He only received 150 pounds for the win, but it earned him a trip to New Zealand, to represent Australia in a rich international series of races in 1930. Amidst the publicity surrounding the event, he was asked the secret of his success:
“My diet is mainly plain, hard food. I steer clear of the sloppy stuff. My usual training practice is to train twice a day, running three or four distances, finishing with a flat-out sprint over the last 30 yards. In addition, I believe in plenty of sun-baking in the morning.”
Lynch Cooper admitted that he never made a fortune as a pro. runner, but was successful enough for it to sustain him during the tough times of the 1930’s.
Running mostly as a back-marker for the remainder of his career curtailed some of his success, but he kept consistently making finals and winning major events. Appearance money and the occasional collect from the bookies kept food on the table.
Wangaratta coach Fred Carey made use of the pace and ball skills of the 5’9″ Cooper by playing him on a wing. He was a member of the Magpies’ 1933 O & M premiership team and gave Wang good service, after previously playing with Wimmera League sides Jeparit and Stawell.
Towards the end of the war, after a long break, Lynch made a comeback to running, but, 21 years after his first race he called it a day. He concentrated instead, on looking after a small stable of athletes and was always sought after for his manipulative skills as a football trainer.
He was rewarded for his contribution to athletics by being named as an original inductee to the Aboriginal Sporting Hall of Fame.
At the time of his death, in 1971, he remained vitally involved in representing his people in the Murray-Goulburn area and was a member of the Aboriginal Affairs Council.
The strength of the Cooper sporting genes was emphasised a fortnight ago, when brilliant Murray Bushranger Nathan Drummond was drafted by Richmond and Joel Hamling found his way onto the Western Bulldogs list, chosen at pick 19.
Both are great-nephews of the legendary Lynch.
And, as three of his great-grand kids, Madison, Joel and Kyle Smith now make their way through the junior ranks of Wangaratta sport it is not too hard to imagine that the name of Lynch Cooper will be further perpetuated in years to come.