Sporting Declaration: Why gymnast Mary-Anne Monckton is an inspiration

THE first time I spoke to Mary-Anne Monckton she was fighting back tears, and understandably so.

It was early in 2012, the day Gymnastics Australia announced its team for the London Olympics.

I had contacted the team media manager 24 hours earlier, requesting an interview with Monckton, the 17-year-old born and bred in Belmont who was considered almost a sure thing for selection.

He phoned me back, as arranged, and said Mary-Anne was OK for a chat.

All good. The only problem was she hadn't made the team.

Instead she had been named as a reserve who would travel to England with the rest of the competitors, training with them in case of injury, but ineligible to stay in the Olympic village.

She had received the news about an hour earlier, and here she was, struggling to comprehend the biggest disappointment of her career, answering questions from some guy she wouldn't know from a bar of soap.

I've interviewed hundreds, possibly thousands, of sportspeople over the years, but there was something about Monckton's courage that day that moved even this tired old hack.

I've seen sullen footballers react to an ordinary game by refusing to speak to media they have known for many years.

Yet here was a teenage girl, who was at her lowest ebb and could easily have been wallowing in self-pity, willing to talk to a total stranger as she came to terms with heartache the likes of which most will never experience. 

INSPIRATIONAL: Mary-Anne Monckton's ability to overcome adversity enabled her to win silver medals at the Commonwealth Games in 2014. Picture: Getty Images

INSPIRATIONAL: Mary-Anne Monckton's ability to overcome adversity enabled her to win silver medals at the Commonwealth Games in 2014. Picture: Getty Images

"When you've been training 10 years for it, the finality of it is pretty overwhelming,'' she told me at the time. ''But I've still got a couple of years left in me and I just have to aim for that ... obviously I'm a bit upset, but at the same time I've just got to know my role in the team, do my job, and whatever happens happens."

I couldn't help admiring her for taking my call that day, and likewise it was impossible not to appreciate the background story that had allowed her to get to that point.

At the age of seven, when she was starting out in gymnastics at Windale PCYC, her potential was noticed by a national talent scout.

She was offered a position at the AIS, and her mother, Alison, immediately packed up her young family and moved to the national capital.

"At the time I didn't really realise what was going on," Mary-Anne recalled.

"I just loved gymnastics and they told Mum I was good at it . . . I'm just really thankful that she gave me that opportunity, to get in the system and train at the AIS.

"Then in 2010, they moved the gymnastics program to Victoria and I had to move there on my own [at the age of 15].

"But it's been the best thing ever. No regrets."

The Monckton family's sacrifices and commitment seemed to have been rewarded when Mary-Anne was selected for the 2010 Delhi Commonwealth Games, only for a serious ankle injury to deny her that opportunity.

She overcame that surgery, and two other reconstructions on the same ankle, to win two silver medals at the 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth Games, and a silver medal at the World Cup in Doha.

Then last week, as she was preparing for the qualifying tournament that will determine whether or not Australia send a team to the Rio Olympics, came perhaps the cruellest setback of all.

During a routine training drill, she fell from the bars awkwardly and suffered a dislocated kneecap and torn anterior cruciate ligament, injuries that leave her facing another long-term process of rehabilitation and recovery.

Typically, her response was courageous and positive, posting the following thoughts on social media: "Shocked, devastated and upset is an understatement right now.

"However I am extremely proud for persevering and pushing myself to my absolute limit in the gym since my last ankle reconstruction 16 months ago, to give myself the best chance of being named in the team which will help Australia qualify for the Olympic Games. In this, I can find peace and satisfaction.''

Many athletes in the same situation might reach the conclusion that enough was enough.

But Monckton has long subscribed to the saying:  "You try, you fail, you try, you fail. But the only time you really fail is when you stop trying."  

Australian team coach Peggy Liddick has described the 21-year-old as a "survivor" and "one of the hardest workers in the gym.''

"When I say do 10, she'll do 11, [but] it's not that,'' Liddick said in an interview last year. "It's when nobody's watching … she really wants to do this. She has every reason to say it's all too hard, but she still comes to the gym every morning, never misses a day.

"It's just something that she wants, really deep down, and that's why she's here. And I'm glad she is."

All, incidentally, for the love of her sport. There would be Real NRL footballers who earn more money than elite-level gymnasts competing on the world stage.

Sporting Declaration was looking forward to watching Monckton in Rio later this year. Obviously that can't happen now.

That doesn't make her story any less inspirational. Here's hoping it will yet have the fairytale finish that she so clearly deserves.