Gerard Thompson, 68, will never forget the day he won the Burnie Gift foot race 40 years ago.
The following story appeared in the Hobart Mercury magazine on Saturday, December 20. Gerard Thompson is managing editor of The Friendly Bay Islander. He visited Hobart recently fora short visit where he was interviewed by the Mercury.
Athletics runs in my family. Four members of our family have won the Burnie Gift. My uncle Ray Geary won in 1945, my second cousin Ashton Shirley won in 1949, I won in 1975 and my first cousin Michael Geary won in 1980. I’ve won 13 gifts, myself, nine in Tasmania and four on the mainland. In one year alone I won five. But it’s not enough to just have it in your family, you also have to have the desire and the ability. As a kid in Hobart I set records at St Virgil’s College in the under-nines in long jump and high jump and I was the junior school athletics champion.
I grew up in D’Emden St, West Hobart. My dad was a journo, including a political reporter, with the Mercury in the 1920s and ’30s, then a clerk assistant in Parliament, where he worked until 1963. I virtually grew up at Parliament House. I played there as a kid and in my teens I worked there in the school holidays. I opened the place up and vacuumed it each day, including both chambers. I even had lunch with the Queen when I was seven – there was nobody to babysit me, so I came along with the adults. We moved to NSW in 1963.
It was while we lived in Goulburn, NSW, that my interest in athletics really picked up. When you were from Tasmania in that era, the first thing you thought was that you weren’t as good as anybody from any of the other states. But I trained with Frank Hutchins, the state champion, and before long I realised I was in his league.
I started out as a journo at the Goulburn Evening Post and started my proper athletic career with Western Suburbs in Sydney. In 1967 I was part of a relay team with Western Suburbs that won the state title. After winning the state title I went to New Guinea to work on the Times Courier, and then came to Tassie and worked on the Advocate in Burnie. My cousin Peter Geary was the big gun pro-runner there at the time. There was no amateur running on the North West Coast at that time. Pro running was everything in that era and if you won the Burnie Gift in that era, it opened every door to you. It was the best calling card you could possibly have. So many of our politicians were athletes and footballers and so on.
I won the Burnie Maiden in 1970 and the Burnie Gift in 1975 and I coached Kevin Court to win it the next year. That was the halcyon period of the Burnie Gift in terms of speed and time. There are a lot of great runners who should have won the Burnie Gift but could never back up for the final. It’s all about knowing how to run the final. You have to focus on what you are going to do and not on anyone else. You are listening for that gun and when it goes off you put into practice everything you believe you need to do to win the race. But the bottom line is that if you don’t get the start, you’ve lost the race. The start has to be perfect.
I developed a method that improved my starting incredibly back then. I called it speed-patterning. The equation of speed is power plus revolutions (leg rotations) equals speed. Nearly every coach in the world coaches for power, not for revolution. Back then, I worked out that if I moved my legs quicker than anyone else, I would have a start that was faster than anyone else.
It will be 40 years on New Year’s Day since I won the Burnie Gift but it still comes up all the time when I’m in Tasmania. Sometimes I’m still stopped on the street. People from all the towns of the North West Coast came to the Burnie carnival back in those days. The crowds are much smaller now. What many Tasmanians fail to appreciate is that the Burnie Gift is the second-longest continuously running sporting event in the world. The Burnie Gift, first run and won in 1887, started nine years before the modern Olympics in 1896. That’s something to be enormously proud of and offers great tourism potential. I’ve got a bit involved with the Burnie Athletic Club recently to try to help build the profile of the race.
Winning gives you a form of selfconfidence that’s unbelievable. The sense of euphoria when you win something like the Burnie Gift is just unbelievable. And it leads to everything else in your life. You feel you can be successful in many areas of your life.
I won my last gift, in Port Macquarie, NSW, when I was 38. I had a wonderful career, not only as a competitor but also coaching. I worked with the Wallabies and some first grade teams in Sydney, I used to coach the first-grade sprint champions as well.
Funnily enough, of all my triumphs on the running track, it wasn’t those gifts that meant the most to me. It was representing St Virgil’s College in the under-nines. It was the most exciting feeling I ever had in my life. I was so happy to see young Jack Hale, also a St Virgil’s boy, wearing the same colours when he broke the world record for a schoolboy recently. The 128th Burnie Gift will be held on January 1 as part of the Burnie New Year’s Day Carnival at West Park Oval, Bass Highway, Burnie. Gates open at 10.30am. The Burnie Gift finals will be held at 7.40pm (women) and 7.50pm (men). Hobart’s schoolboy sprinting champion Jack Hale has entered the 120m Invitational Sprint at the carnival. For more information, go to Facebook and search for Burnie New Year’s Day Carnival. Gerard Thompson’s memoir Baby Boomer is published by Xlibris and is available online at bookstore.xlibris.com