Hunter's elite athletes geared up for Olympics

Since the ancient Greeks first gathered almost 3000 years ago to pay homage to Zeus and the other gods of Mount Olympus, it has been mankind’s greatest sporting theatre.

Every four years the nations of the world arrive in peace at an agreed location to uphold a noble mantra passed down from one generation to the next: Citius, Altius, Fortius.

Faster, Higher, Stronger.

For two weeks the triumphs of human beings dominate the front pages of newspapers, which makes a pleasant change from the trials, tribulations and tragedies.

In 13 days, more than 14,000 athletes from 205 nations will march into London’s gleaming new, $750million Olympic Stadium, capacity 80,000, for the Games of the 30th (modern) Olympiad.

A team of almost 400 competitors will represent Australia. Given that our country has a population of approximately 22.5 million, the odds of being selected as an Aussie Olympian are roughly one in 56,250, or 0.0000177 per cent.

These people are the absolute elite. The best of the best. Eleven of them live, or were raised, in Newcastle, Lake Macquarie or the Hunter Valley.

Their names are Angie Bainbridge, Suzy Batkovich, Richie Campbell, Thomas Fraser-Holmes, Benn Harradine, Iain Jensen, Simon Orchard, Nathan Outteridge, Daniel Repacholi, Jenni Screen and Brendan Sexton.

They have spent years, even decades, preparing for this moment. They could not be more ready.

This is their time. The time of their lives.

It starts with a dream, usually seen through the eyes of a child.

At some point the dream transforms into hope, then belief, then ambition and, finally, reality.

Dream, believe, create, succeed.

If only it was that easy.

THOMAS FRASER-HOLMES had that dream. And he has a fellow Novocastrian to thank for it.

Twelve years ago, Fraser-Holmes watched in awe as Stockton’s Justin Norris punched the air after finishing third in the 200-metre butterfly at the Sydney Olympics. The pair trained at the same club, the iconic Arnold’s Swim Centre at The Junction.

For Fraser-Holmes, then aged nine, the one minute and 56.7 seconds it took Norris to clinch an Olympic bronze medal changed his life.

If Norris could achieve such a famous feat, why couldn’t he?

‘‘Every kid dreams of going to the Olympics and, for me, watching Justin Norris at the 2000 Olympics probably kick-started it,’’ Fraser-Holmes tells Weekender.

‘‘That’s why I wanted to start swimming ... [then] probably when I went to the AIS in Canberra in 2008, that was when I

started to realise ‘I can go to the Olympics. I can realise my goal.’’’

That Fraser-Holmes clinched his berth on the team by beating Norris’s Olympic time – smashing the Australian record – made his selection even more special.

And the 20-year-old from Merewether, who will compete against US superstars Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte in the 400-metre individual medley and the 200m freestyle, vows to uphold Newcastle’s reputation for producing sporting giant-killers.

‘‘Some people did their best swim just making the team, and they’re just happy to be there,’’ he says. ‘‘But some people are not content just being there ... I don’t want to just make up the numbers. I want to swim my best and show what I can do on an international stage.’’

ANGIE BAINBRIDGE (pictured second from right) emerged from the same pool of talent, literally, as Fraser-Holmes, earning her swimming L-plates under the late Eric Arnold.

But whereas Fraser-Holmes, two years her junior, is a rookie Olympian, Bainbridge has been there, won that.

Four years ago she returned from Beijing with a coveted gold medal and a confusing mix of emotions. Proud as she was of her glittering souvenir, it was a bitter-sweet reward.

Bainbridge swam in the heats of the 4 x 200m freestyle relay, but big guns Stephanie Rice, Bronte Barratt, Kylie Palmer and Linda Mackenzie were chosen for the final. They rewarded the selectors by stunning hot favourites the US to snatch the gold.

Australia’s four heat swimmers were all presented with medals but not until two days after the race, in a low-key ceremony at the athletes’ village. Four years on, Bainbridge has again been named in Australia’s 4x200m team. And this time she intends to stand on the podium.

‘‘Obviously in 2008 I was excited to be going to the Olympics,’’ she says.

‘‘But I’m so much more motivated now, because I want it so much more, knowing what the feeling was like to miss out on the final.

‘‘I want it that little bit extra.’’

Today, Bainbridge believes knowing what to expect will be a priceless advantage.

‘‘It’s good we’ve already experienced it, because we know how to handle it a bit better,’’ she says.

‘‘If you know you’ve done everything you possibly can to get where you are, then there’s no looking back, no regrets.’’

If memories of Beijing have fuelled Bainbridge during her gruelling early-morning sessions in Canberra’s AIS pool, then just try to imagine the steely mindset of Wangi Wangi sailing prodigy NATHAN OUTTERIDGE (pictured right).

Outteridge was just 300 metres from Olympic gold in Beijing when the 49er skiff he and Ben Austin were crewing capsized in gale-forced winds and stormy seas. The pre-race favourites finished unplaced, and for the past four years a photo of a shattered Outteridge, sitting forlornly on his upturned craft, has adorned the fridge of the family home.

‘‘It’s a reminder that things can go bad,’’ the multiple world champion told Weekender last year. ‘‘But they’re never as bad as they seem at the time.’’

Outteridge was well-placed to express such sentiments. Missing out on a gold medal was far from the most painful setback of his life.

In 2005, at the age of 19, he was lucky to survive a car crash that left him with a broken back and in a plastic body cast for three months.

There were fears he may never walk again, let alone sail. But return he did, vowing never to take anything for granted again.

Far from dwelling on his Beijing misfortune, 26-year-old Outteridge has hit back with a vengeance, recently becoming the first man in history to win four 49er skiff world championships.

Outteridge’s partner for three of those triumphs has been another Wangi product, IAIN JENSEN, who is two years his junior.

The pair learned to sail as toddlers on the tranquil waters of Lake Macquarie. When they launch at Weymouth on July 30, they will at short odds to win gold.

But in the Olympics, as Outteridge knows all too well, there are no guarantees.

‘‘It’s a big thrill to win any world championship, but it’s extra special to do it in an Olympic year,’’ Jensen said recently.

‘‘At the end of the day, 2012 is all about Olympic gold.’’

At 198 centimetres and 115 kilograms, BENN HARRADINE casts an imposing shadow.

It is hard to imagine the discus-throwing giant from Eleebana being easily intimidated, but he admits arriving at the athletes’ village in Beijing took him out of his comfort zone.

‘‘It’s such a huge event, and you can’t really fathom just how much it can be a distraction unless you’ve been through it before,’’ he says. ‘‘I mean, just walking to the dining room, the time it takes to get to the arena, the call times, those are all things you learn from having one Olympics under your belt.

‘‘Those things I can take into consideration and I know what to expect and how to plan for that.

‘‘Obviously I’ll be better prepared for what to expect, better prepared mentally, and physically I feel in pretty good shape, too.

‘‘It’s just a matter of finalising my preparations and making sure I’m in the best place I can be to perform at my best.’’

The 29-year-old, who took up athletics as a youngster when a liver condition forced him to quit contact sports, finished 31st in Beijing after losing crucial strength and training time after a battle with E.coli virus sustained in Morocco.

He has been troubled recently by a back problem but after posting a national-record 67.53 metres in May – at the time the best throw by anyone in the world this year – he will head to London believing he is a contender.

‘‘It’s a matter of getting to the final, that’s the first goal,’’ he says.

‘‘We’ve got three throws in the qualifying rounds and we have to produce a throw that’s going get us through to the top 12. After that, it’s just a matter of fighting for the highest place I can.

‘‘If I go in there, to London, in good shape it’s not unrealistic to consider that I may be able to finish at the pointy end.’’

Still, Harradine is also working hard to avoid making too many predictions: ‘‘I just want to make sure my preparation is perfect and focus on the process.’’

A larger-than-life character whose trademark is his psychedelic lycra bodysuits, Harradine shapes as the type of crowd-pleaser who could return from London as a household name.

Especially if he does so with a medal hanging around his neck.

If Merewether’s RICHIE CAMPBELL was the rookie of Australia’s water polo team at Beijing, he will arrive in London a hardened veteran with more than 140 internationals under his belt.

And as far as Sharks coach John Fox is concerned, for Australia to improve on their eighth-placed finish four years ago, then 24-year-old Campbell will have to be their go-to man.

‘‘He’s recognised around the world as a leading player,’’ Fox says.

‘‘He’ll be a marked man at the Olympics, in terms of his shooting ability, and also he’s a very good defender ... water polo players don’t come into their prime until their later 20s.’’

According to Fox, Campbell is entering the phase of his career where he can really make his mark, individually, as a great player.

‘‘Hopefully he does that at this Olympics,’’ says the coach.

The centre-back, who plays professionally in Spain for Club Natacio Barcelona during the Australian winter, has no doubt the Sharks are

capable of improving on their result in Beijing.

They finished fifth at the Cosenza Trophy in Italy last week and Campbell says they are yet to reach their peak.

‘‘Come London, absolutely anything can happen,’’ he says. ‘‘We’re matching it with the best teams in the world.’’

The wide-eyed Campbell of four years ago has transformed into a mature man on a mission, focused only on getting the job done.

‘‘It felt a lot different, actually,’’ he recalls of his selection.

‘‘In Beijing, I was excited and relieved to get selected, but didn’t know what to expect. Now I just want to get there and start playing.’’

For every Ian Thorpe, Cathy Freeman and Stephanie Rice who earn millions in endorsements, there are 1000 little Aussie battlers doing whatever it takes to realise their Olympic dreams.

BRENDAN SEXTON, a Maitland-born triathlete who now bases himself in Melbourne and Spain, is one of them.

The 26-year-old who calls himself ‘‘Kung Fu’’ was close to selection for Beijing, only to suffer a long-term foot injury and then a horrific crash that almost ended his career.

Training in Canberra, Sexton collided with another cyclist and was left unconscious and with multiple facial fractures that required extensive surgery.

For the best part of a year, Sexton doubted he would recover. Slowly, however, form and fitness returned. He won the triathlon World Cup in Mexico last year, and added the Oceania crown this year.

But it is not yet a lucrative career path, by any means.

‘‘Since I came to Melbourne four years ago, I’ve really had no place to call home, because I’m on the road so often,’’ he explains.

‘‘For a while there, I couldn’t find a short-term place to live for three weeks, so I lived in a friend’s garage. He used it as a training room and he had a sofa in it, so I crashed there for three weeks before I went back up to [train in] the mountains.

‘‘It was convenient and the right price, and really all I could get hold of at short notice.’’

Such a Spartanesque existence could provide the hard edge Sexton needs on August 7, when he churns through a 1500-metre swim, 40-kilometre cycle and 10km run.

And if mental toughness and self-belief count for anything, he is in with a shot.

‘‘The triathlon historically in the men’s has always been won by a dark horse,’’ Sexton says.

‘‘It’s never been won by the favourite.

‘‘Just going off my form over the past 18 months, I believe I have the ability, on my best day, to be at the front and be in a position to win it.

‘‘That’s what I’m aiming for and that’s what will motivate me.’’

Another primed to enhance Maitland’s reputation as a sporting hotbed is

SIMON ORCHARD, who has played in more than 100 hockey internationals for Australia.

Orchard missed selection for Beijing but that proved to be a mixed blessing.

‘‘It was hard,’’ he says. ‘‘I was a 21-year-old kid and all I wanted to do was go to the Olympics, and then someone tells you you haven’t been selected.

‘‘I remember being pretty upset. I’d done a lot of hard work and it felt like it was for no real purpose.

‘‘I was in a bit of a hole, but ... it was something that probably steeled me to become a better player. It’s all paid off now I guess.’’

Now 25, Orchard, who celebrates each goal with a dance he calls the ‘‘Maitland Ram’’ in honour of his junior club, said he is not heading to London for a silver medal.

The Kookaburras enter the Olympics as world champions and top seeds.

‘‘There’s an inner belief in our squad that if we can play to our ability, on our day we can beat anyone in the world,’’ Orchard says.

‘‘That’s something we’ve proven over the last few years. We won the World Cup, the Commonwealth Games, we’ve won four Champions Trophies, which has never been done.

‘‘So, yeah, the goal for me and the rest of the guys was not just to be selected for the Olympics. We want to go there and win.

‘‘That’s what drives me the most. I don’t just want to be another contender in London, I want a gold medal.

‘‘If we don’t [win a gold medal], we’ll be devastated.

Basketball veterans JENNIFER SCREEN (pictured above)and SUZY BATKOVICH (pictured below), both born-and-bred Novocastrians, know exactly where Orchard is coming from.

Both were in Beijing when Australia finished with the silver medal. Batkovich also collected second prize in Athens.

In hindsight, they agree there was no shame in Australia finishing runners-up to the mighty United States in three successive Olympiads.

But at the time, as Batkovich well recalls, the primary emotion was devastation.

‘‘The disappointment after playing in the final, and losing, is pretty overwhelming,’’ the 31-year-old says. ‘‘But when you look back on it later, you realise most people would be happy with a silver medal.

‘‘But winning the gold would be the ultimate, and I’ll do everything in my power to help make that happen in London.’’

Screen, 30, is confident the Opals are capable of breaking through in London and ending the US dominance.

‘‘I think we have a great opportunity to do something special,’’ she says. ‘‘There is a really good energy about this team.’’

The selection of Batkovich and Screen is a reward for courage and character, as much as skill and experience.

A year ago, both were at their lowest ebb.

Screen was pondering a career-threatening injury, Batkovich the death of her father, Jay, after a long battle with lymphoma.

‘‘Twelve months ago, there was a huge percentage that I would never play basketball again because of my knees,’’ Screen says.

‘‘That was a reality check ... but when the opportunities arose, I just took them.

‘‘I knew I could play on that stage again. And because I’d been out of the team, and have experienced loss, it makes you appreciate things more. You realise how valuable and important it is.’’

Batkovich says that losing her father was ‘‘definitely, the hardest thing I’ve ever had to deal with’’.

But his memory will spur her on in London.

‘‘It’s something I hold close to me, because he was one of the main people in my life,’’ she says.

‘‘Not having him around for the Olympics will be tough, but I play for him a lot.

‘‘He does motivate me and I like to think he’s watching down on me, I guess.’’

DANIEL REPACHOLI admits it was hardly love at first sight when he was introduced to his future wife, Alex, and explained that he was a two-time Olympian.

‘‘She thought I was talking shit,’’ he says with a laugh. ‘‘But then she went home and Googled me.’’

Alex may not have been sure about the towering pistol shooter from country Victoria, but he apparently had no such reservations.

The qualified toolmaker soon moved to Nulkaba, found work driving trucks in Mount Thorley Warkworth mine, and in May this year they were married.

London will be Daniel’s third Olympic campaign, and Alex’s first as a supporter, and if the 30-year-old has his way, there will be many more to come.

‘‘The oldest bloke in the team is 50, so there’s another three or four I can aim at,’’ he predicts. ‘‘I’d like to continue on, and I definitely want to go to the next two Commonwealth Games, in Scotland and the Gold Coast, and the Rio Olympics are in between them. That’s the plan.’’

At his two Olympics, Repacholi finished 31st and 36th in the 10-metre air pistol, and 40th and 23rd in the 50m event.

A gold medallist at the 2006 Commonwealth Games, he is backing himself to emerge as top gun in London.

‘‘I’m shooting well at the moment,’’ he said.

‘‘Any one of the top 40 shooters can win, it’s that close.’’

One recurring theme while interviewing our 11 London Olympians has been the interest they show in their Newcastle/Lake Macquarie/Hunter Region compatriots.

When Adelaide-based Jennifer Screen asks me to list them, she is blown away.

‘‘Wow. That’s awesome – 11 people from this region,’’ she enthuses.

‘‘Sure, we might have to move away and live in a different city to get where we want to get to. But in our hearts, we know where we’re from and where our home is.’’

They also know where they are going. To the London Olympics.

Where, God willing, they will be striving to do us proud, just like the ancient Greeks almost 3000 years ago.

Don't miss your THE HUNTER AT THE OLYMPICS

Souvenir liftout in Wednesday’s Herald.

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