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Chapter 15 – The girls go to the “Big Dance”
© 2012 Ben Gathercole

The Hawaii Ironman has always been described as the “Big Dance”. I can tell you, after being to both, that the Olympic Games are seriously the biggest dance and I was going to have a front row seat for the women’s race.

The girls raced the day before the boys and it gave Simon and I the perfect opportunity to do a dry run of everything. It was a team decision for the boys to stay at the sub-site and keep a low profile but the entire staff would attend the women’s race. The boys would be watching on TV and cheering madly for Loretta, Rina and Maxine.

This was a great opportunity for me. It was a chance to do a walkthrough of the exact process we had planned for the next day. Not only that, I was going to see the best female triathletes in the world go head-to-head.

A beautiful day dawned but the heat was already starting to build. The team cars got the girls to the site with plenty of time to warm up and soak it all in. The girls were intense, nervous and a little apprehensive. This was uncharted territory for them. The introduction and walking out to the start pontoon was just electric and you could feel everyone was on edge. This was it for the girls, the race was about to start.

No disrespect to the women here, but women’s racing at that time was predictable for the most part. It was just a different style to the men; no better, no worse, just different. Loretta Harrop, Barb Lindquist and Sheila Toormina would blast the swim (all being ex-swimmers), jump on the bike and ride flat-out, tear the legs off anyone else close, and also the chasing pack, then settle into a strong run. It had worked for these three girls over the past few years and was certainly going to be the race plan for this event. It was going to be a matter of “catch us if you can” and it certainly didn’t look like anyone had shown the form to challenge that premise.

The gun fired and, true to form, the three girls hit the lead and just smashed it. Once out of the swim, they proceeded to do the same on the bike. They worked so hard that it didn’t look like anyone else would have a chance. Would they wilt in the heat? Had they gone too hard on such a demanding course? Which of the three would be dropped first? All of these questions were about to be answered on the run.

Unfortunately, the other Aussie girls, Rina and Maxine, couldn’t reproduce their form from the qualifying races. Both the girls struggled, for no particular reason, but it didn’t look like being their day. In fact one of the girls hadn’t even bothered to change her rear cluster for the monster climb. Both of their races weren’t going to plan, but to be fair to these girls, they weren’t the only ones struggling with the course. I recall seeing on the big screen one of the Japanese girls doing zigzags to get up the hill. It was proving to be one of the decisive factors on this brutal course.

The lead girls hit the run and immediately Loretta went to the front and started hammering. Loretta was always known for her aggressive and tough race style, honed through years of racing at the highest level. She was regarded as hard as nails but, in reality, she is one of the nicest people you could ever meet and I regard the friendship I developed with her, during the Olympic campaign, as a personal highlight.

The other girls were starting to fade. All Loretta needed to do was hold on and that elusive gold medal would be hers. Australia would finally have their first Olympic win. At 7 kilometres, she was still looking good. At 8 kilometres, she was slowing a tad but still okay. We could all see on the big screen what the race was costing her but we also knew she’d almost got there. At 9 kilometres the course commentator was screaming that Kate Allen an ex-Australian but now racing for Austria, was storming home and was within sight of Loretta. At 9.7 kilometres, as Loretta turned to come down the finish straight, Kate Allen came from behind and passed Loretta like she was standing still. Everyone was stunned and then the crowd went wild at seeing such a huge upset on the line. Kate Allen had snatched the gold medal with 300 metres to go and collapsed over the line as Olympic champion. Loretta swayed over the line in total exhaustion, congratulated Kate and collapsed in a heap. She had won the Olympic silver medal and given everything she had plus 10 per cent. What a result, what a performance and what a race to honour the Olympic tradition. The race had shown that ultimately the course itself was the boss and would allow no easy victories.

It was a great privilege for me to be at the finish line and be able to see behind the scenes. I witnessed Kate Allen’s sheer surprise and joy at her perfectly timed race. She had lifted herself and had the race of her life at the perfect time. It was an outstanding performance.

I was also able to witness Loretta slowly realise her dream wasn’t to be. She knew she’d given everything possible. She was incredibly emotional, she certainly had thoughts of her brother Luke, who had been killed in 2002 while training on his bike, her mother who had lost her battle with cancer, her father who wasn’t able to be in Athens and she knew how close she had come. She was unbelievably gracious and complimentary about her competitors, which showed her true character. She had just spent the last two hours driving herself as hard as possible on the most brutal course, in the hottest conditions imaginable in the biggest event on the planet and she managed to show sportsmanship that not many could muster. For me, able to witness everything in that emotionally charged, pressure-packed environment, Loretta’s performance was truly of gold medal class. Bravo Loretta, bravo!
Loretta’s thoughts
I think first and foremost it is very important for me to emphasise the “journey” to my Olympic silver medal. Athens 2004 was round two for me and a final “hurrah” for want of a better word. After finishing a disappointing fifth at the Sydney Olympics, I had not for a second given up on my goal of winning an Olympic medal.

I was never an athlete who just wanted to make the team; I wanted a medal, gold preferably. Sydney held sour memories for me for many reasons apart from the result. It was then I made up my mind to do it all again four years on and do it right.

First up was to qualify. That race I consider to be my greatest ever. Something that stood out then and still does now is the almost routine expectation of me to qualify on that day in Coffs Harbour. Yet at the other end of that spectrum was Simon Thompson … his sheer surprise and being overwhelmed to have made his first Olympic team. How I wished I felt such excitement and not just a “tick that box” kind of satisfaction!

Along with Simon on the team I had my two great friends Rina Hill and Greg Bennett. I was determined to make Athens a fantastic memory for me and these great people among others helped with that. I was relaxed, determined and totally confident in my ability to race for gold. I had won all the International Triathlon Union races leading in to the Olympics except for a silver medal at the World Championships that year which was my first race of the season. I had a handy US$250,000 cash in my pocket having won the Lifetime Fitness Triathlon only weeks before. I was as ready as I was ever going to be.

A couple of days out as I recall, the triathletes were allowed an hour to ride the Olympic bike course. We had all heard of the hill with a tidy 12 per cent gradient. I was in charge of my own preparation in Athens; I had no coach or family along with me. That warm-up day I remember my heart racing as the officials told us to start riding the course for a practise. I hopped off my bike and just watched at the bottom of the hill. I saw some girls from the United States race up it a hundred miles an hour only to come to a standstill halfway up. I saw the guys take off and almost topple off as they neared the top.

I decided that the hill was not going to change before race day whether I practised on it or not. I decided that I needed to be in race mode to attack this hill. I also decided I felt confident and strong and did not want to go to bed that night worrying about how “hard” that friggin’ hill was! So I packed up and went for a swim. Race day I was the best on that hill.

I can talk about how I led the Athens Olympic race from start to finish EXCEPT for the last six seconds when I was beaten. To be honest, though, that is not the part I ever think about. I had so much fun carving up such a hard course that everyone said you could not do alone. I put on a great show for everyone at home watching and all who were there. My preparation was absolutely perfect, I left no stone unturned and therefore was not disappointed.

That silver medal was a journey I had undertaken many years before. I had lost my mum when I was 17; she had a year-long fight with cancer. I lost my brother when I was 25 and he was only 23 years old, and I had been by my dad’s side with his battle against lung cancer only a year before we lost Luke.

What I realised on that Olympic day was the strength of the human spirit. I had kept my dream and I had chipped away at it through the most difficult circumstances.

Funnily enough there was a lot of media about that medal “being for Luke” or “for my mum”. They are two people who are on my mind always but I think actually that medal was for me … it proved I was going to be okay.
Lesson learned: Sportsmanship
Loretta showed that no matter what – no matter how big the occasion, no matter the pressure, no matter what’s being said around you – sportsmanship, manners and grace are truly gold medal characteristics. Loretta has all of those.

© 2012 Ben Gathercole