Fifty Years of Little Athletics in NSW
Skills and techniques developed in athletics are regarded as fundamental for all sport. In the 50-year existence of Little Athletics NSW, over half a million athletes have enjoyed running, jumping and throwing with the Association. Their journeys in athletics have been as diverse as the sport itself. Hundreds have gone on to wear the green and gold, hundreds more have made lifelong friends, many have taken those foundation skills to other sports. But one thing is assured, they have cherished their introduction to sport as they build discipline and self-esteem, learn dedication and respect, and become aware of the benefits of fitness and health in life.
Little Athletics in Australia grew from a small group of athletes in Geelong Victoria in 1963 under the guidance of Trevor Billingham. In 1967 Victorian Little Athletics Association was formed and a year later in October 1968 Dick Corish was the driving force for competition to commence in NSW at Randwick Botany Centre.
Just prior to the commencement of the 1970/71 track and field season moves were made to establish more Centres, resulting in competition commenced at Blacktown, Sutherland, Eastern Suburbs, Deniliquin, Murrumbidgee (Narrandera/Leeton), Manly Warringah and Hornsby. During this period, the Little Athletics Association of NSW (LAANSW) was formed on 8th December 1970 at a meeting at the Randwick Botany Club where a steering committee was appointed under the Chairmanship of Cec Hensley.
FIRST NSW TRACK AND FIELD CHAMPIONSHIPS
The first NSW track and field championships were held at Hensley Athletics Field in March 1971 with the championships attracting 1,331 entries. All but one of the eight Centres, Murrumbidgee, competed. Events were held in the under-7 to under-12 age groups, with Randwick Botany the most successful Centre gaining 811 points, Hornsby second with 441 points and Blacktown third with 290 points.
In the under-12 boys, Michael Whitney was first in the long jump and second in the high and triple jumps. He would go on to represent NSW and Australian in cricket. In the under-11 girls, Beverly Wilkins won the 800m walk and as a senior athlete represented Australia in the Commonwealth Games.
The first interstate competition took place in Melbourne March 1970 with a team of U11 and U12 athletes from Randwick Botany competing against Western Australia and Victoria. On April 4, 1971 after only four months in existence, the first official LAANSW State team was selected as NSW hosted a very successful inaugural Interstate Competition at the Hensley Athletics Field.
GROWTH OF THE ASSOCIATION
No records were kept of registrations in the inaugural 1970/71 season, but the second annual report noted an estimate of 2,800 athletes and eight Centres. In their second year they had grown to 6,424 athletes and 18 Centres.
LAANSW surpassed 10,000 registrations in 1973, 20,000 in 1978 and 30,000 in 1983. For the next 37 years, the numbers generally remained between 30,000 and 40,000. The peak year was 41,557 in 2013. A trend was a boost in registrations post each Olympics.
Similarly with numbers of Centres, they grew rapidly; they first surpassed 100 in 1979, 150 in 1983 and 200 in 1995. Since then, they have hovered around 200 Centres, peaking in 1997 with 2007 Centres.
A yearly feature is the mid-year gathering of Centre administrators at the annual Conference, the first held at the Oceanic Hotel, Coogee in August 1972. The Little Athletics Association of New South Wales became incorporated on 19th January 1988.
Little Athletics NSW – Centres
The Centres have been the strength in the incredible growth of Little Athletics in NSW. From an initial eight Centres in 1971 to regularly over 200 annually, located in every corner of the state.
The Randwick Botany Centre commenced competition in October 1968 and during the summer of 1970/71, the interest had grown with another seven Centres opening their doors, Blacktown, Sutherland, Eastern Suburbs, Deniliquin, Murrumbidgee (Narrandera/Leeton), Manly Warringah and Hornsby. The eight pioneer Centres have gone on to be some of the most prominent Centres in the 50-year history of the sport in NSW.
On 26 October 1968, the first little athletics competition in NSW was held at Hensley Athletics Field and the club has continued to use the same venue for over half a century. The Centre provided many of the early pioneers of the Association, including Cec Hensley, George Soper, Dick Corish and Jack Freeman. Involved early on at their Centre, and still there to this very day is Tony Vecellio. Randwick Botany hosted the first NSW Championships and many of the great athletes emerged from the Centre including Olympians Jane and Natalie Saville, Selma Kajan and Jess Thornton; cricketer Mike Whitney; netballer Sue Kenny; as well as Rabbitohs Craig Wing and John Sutton.
Blacktown Little Athletics Centre administrators Adele Whelan and Peter Shinnick were appointed managers for the first NSW team to travel to an Interstate Team Championships in 1972. Shinnick would go on to become the Association’s first employee as Secretary/Manager. Another prominent administrator with the Centre was Dereck Fineberg, LANSW President for seven years and President of Little Athletics Australia for six years. Beverly Wilkins was their first star athlete representing Australia at the Commonwealth Games. Olympic long jumper Fabrice Lapierre was also a member.
The leading Centre in the south was Sutherland. In 1974, they placed second to Hornsby in the State point score. Their first state team member was Sharon Hadfield (1972 team), brother of Olympic decathlete Peter Hadfield. Sharon and Peter’s father, was a key person involved in the establishment of their competition track – Sylvania Waters Athletics Field, which would host two LAANSW State Championships – 1987 and 1988. Rio Olympian Ella Nelson was also a member of their Centre.
The prominence of Eastern Suburbs Little Athletics Centre is reflected in them awarded the number ‘2’ competition bib. Competing for them at the very first State Championships was future Australian representative Liz Miller (nee Rose), winning a medal in the U7 50m, 70m and long jump.
Deniliquin was one of two pioneer Centres from NSW country. As Melbourne was closer, the father of Little Athletics in Australia, Trevor Billingham, assisted them to commence. They competed at the first NSW Championships, held in Sydney in 1971, sending a team of 25 athletes, winning 25 medals. The outstanding athlete was Roger Menadue who won three state titles in the 60m hurdles, high jump and discus and was selected in the inaugural state team.
Murrumbidgee was the second Country Centre to be launched in the inaugural year of Little Athletics in NSW. They changed their name to Leeton for the 1983/84 season. Their first NSW State team representatives were Philip Hurst in 1974, followed by the first girl, Lyn Heath in 1976.
One of the eight pioneer Centres that have become a powerhouse in NSW is the Manly Warringah Centre, however their start was modest. The first annual report of LAANSW, noted ‘all Centres, with the possible exception of Manly-Warringah, which may still need a little supporting, are now firmly established’. During the ‘80s they were a top-5 Centre, but during the ‘90s dominated, winning the State Championships points score by staggering margins. Some outstanding athletes were: Cath Emmerson, Nicole Liestenschneider, Peter Elvy, David Geddes, Kristie Edwards, Alex Willett, Amanda Thomas and James Watson.
While Randwick Botany was clearly the pioneer Centre, Hornsby picked up the baton and ensured NSW quickly grew into the leading Little Athletics State in Australia. They grew to 1297 registrations in the third year of operation and so become a most successful Centre dominating the State Championships and Relays Championship point scores. They were guided by tremendous administrators, many who were also in key Little Athletics NSW roles. Administrators included Graeme and Margaret Allen, Grahame Down, Stan Hamley, Arnold Hunt, Bob Quail, Vic Sparks, Keith Garling and Col Joyce. Leading athletes were numerous, including Olympians Darren Clark and Adam Rutter; along with Graham Garnett, Paul Gilbert, Margaret Hamley, Glenn MacLaughlan, Janine Shepherd and Lyndal Garling.
While the above pioneer Centres were prominent, there were dozens more Centres who commenced operations across the State in the ‘70s.
In the second year 1971/72 – major Centres to commence included Bankstown, Fairfield, Griffith, Holroyd, Mid South Coast (now titled Lake Illawarra), Parramatta, St George and Wagga Wagga. In 1972/73 these Centre commenced: Balmain, Armidale, Hawkesbury, Hay, Hills, Gloucester, Kempsey, Lethbridge Park, Mosman, Nepean, Nambucca, Springwood and Western Suburbs.
By the end of the first decade 110 Centres were in operation across the state. They reached 200 by 1995 and have hovered around 200 Centres ever since
Little Athletics NSW – The athletes
The half a million NSW Little Athletes, who have during the last 50 years experienced Little Athletics in NSW, have evolved into all areas of sport and industry.
NSW athletes have also been good, very good, winning 35 of the 49 Australian Little Athletics Teams Championship, first held in 1971. Victoria, with 12 wins have been the next strongest, while Queensland and Western Australia have a win each.
The first NSW athlete to progress to the Olympic arena was ‘Emmaville Express’, Debbie Wells, who in 1973, and competing for Armidale Little Athletics Centre, won the State U12 100m, 200m and long jump, all in meet records. Three years later she was in Montreal at the 1976 Olympics Games. Over the next five decades, dozens more Olympians started their journey in sport in Little Athletics.
As recently as last month the five NSW athletes added to the Tokyo Olympic team were all Little Athletes: Jye Edwards (Albion Park), Nicola McDermott (Gosford), Bendere Oboya (Prospect), Rohan Browning (Illawong) and Dani Stevens (Greystanes). They join Jessica Hull (Albion Park) who was selected last year and Liz Clay (Hornsby) who now competes for Queensland.
Three-time Olympian, Melinda Gainsford-Taylor from Narromine, competed for Trangie Centre in the early ‘80s. It was where she was discovered by the then LANSW Development Officer, Jackie Byrnes. Another country athlete was Amy Winters from Kempsey in the ‘90s, competing for the Macleay District – she would go on to be a four-time Paralympic Games gold medallist.
Currently national 400m record holder Darren Clark competed in the sprints in the Hornsby colours. Clark was not the best in his age, but did sneak onto the 1977 ALAC team before he became a superstar a few years later, running 44.38 for 400m in 1988.
In the late ‘90s Paramatta LA Centre developed future world champion hurdler Jana Pittman. She would become the only Australian women to compete at the winter and summer Olympics.
NSW was very strong in race walking, with many going onto Olympic representation. In the late ‘80s sisters Jane and Natalie Saville (Randwick Botany) were in an incredible race walking era, along with Athens Olympian Cheryl Webb (Penrith), the current LANSW Competitions coordinator.
Many others moved into others sports after spending time in Little Athletics. In the very first state team was future Australian cricketer and television personality Mike Whitney (Randwick Botany). Two-time world champion Australian netballer Kimberlee Green was a terrific sprinter with St George LA Centre, selected in the 1999 ALAC U13 team and then again in 2001 in the multi-event. Also in the 2001 ALAC team was future world champion discus thrower, Dani Stevens (nee Samuels). Another Australian netballer Gabi Simpson (Randwick Botany) was a very good allrounder and hurdler and had some great battles over the hurdles against Rio Olympian Michelle Jenneke (Cherrybrook). They would in 2018 be Gold Coast Commonwealth Games teammates in their respective sports. Another Australian netballer was Sue Kenny who competed for Randwick Botany in the ‘80s, and also Natalie Avellino who was in the Diamond’s 1995 world championship winning team.
Reigning Olympic Modern Pentathlon gold medallist Chloe Esposito competed with Liverpool Centre in distance events. Another Rio Olympian, Olympic cyclist Ashlee Ankudinoff, race walked at Illawong, while Ashlee’s Rio Olympic cycling teammate Rachel Neylan hurdled at Ryde LA Centre. A couple of other former Little Athletes in different sports at the Rio Olympics were, Matilda Alanna Kennedy (Ambarvale) and triathlete Aaron Royle (Wallsend).
An enormous number of rugby league players started their journey in sport in little athletics. Australian rugby league full back, James Tedesco was a sprinter and jumper at Campbelltown in the ‘00s, winning a medal in the U10s 200m. A few years ahead of him at Campbelltown was another Australian rugby league player, Chris Lawrence, who played with Wests Tigers. Lawrence, who was a state champion in sprints, and still holds state and Australian records, played in the centres and eventually second row. He was a member of the 2002 ALAC team, along with State of Origin half-back Mitchell Pearce (Ku-ring-gai Centre). Current NSW state of origin player, Payne Haas (Macquarie Hunter) was a very good little athlete and still holds state and national shot put records. An Australian shot put record Haas broke, was held by former Australian player, Jamal Idris (Bankstown). Idris, who mainly played centre, represented Australia at the World Youth Athletics Championships in the discus. Paramatta league player Tepai Moeroa (Doonside) still holds state shot put records and former Penrith winger Luke Rooney sprinter for Springwood Centre. Rabbitohs trio, Craig Wing, Beau Champion and John Sutton were members of Randwick Botany Little Athletics. Even some league coaches were little athletics members. Current Penrith coach, Ivan Cleary, won state long jump titles as an U9 and U10 for the Manly Centre in the early ‘80s, defeating a future Olympian Paul Henderson (Macquarie Shores) and Australian representative Jason Kougellis (Ku-ring-gai). A member of the 1991 ALAC team was current North Queensland Cowboys coach, Todd Payten.
Current Channel 9 USA correspondent, Alison Piotrowski was a very good hurdler competing for Girraween Centre in the late ‘90s, while Sky News presenter Paul Murray was also a Little Athlete. Australian hip-hop dance and pop music group, Justice Crew featured Ryde LA Centre athletes John and Len Pearce who were terrific sprinters/jumpers in the ‘00s. The Australian newspaper’s European correspondent and award winning sports journalist, Jacquelin Magnay was in the 1976 ALAC team. She was a discus thrower and her parents were prominent administrators at St George LA Centre. A member of the 1974 ALAC team was race walker Janine Shepherd who became a leading cross country skiier after overcoming life threatening injuries sustained in a bicycle training accident. As a walking paraplegic she gained her pilots license and has authored a number of best selling books. A 1978 ALAC member, John MacLean later competed in the Sydney Paralympics and swam the English channel.
Australian junior representative and now international model, Amy Pejkovic (Cherrybrook) was a champion high jumper in the ‘00s. Leading filmmaker Megan Riakos was in the 1994 ALAC team and was a champion race walker at Randwick Botany Centre. The voice of 1979 ALAC team member and talented discus thrower, Stephen Carline (Sutherland), is heard across the airwaves as a traffic reporter on a number of radio stations.
Other athletes who have gone on to become Olympians included: Selma Kajan (RB), Jess Thornton (RB), Nicole Boegman-Stewart (Bankstown), Jane Jamieson (Ku-ring-gai), Fabrice Lapierre (Blacktown), Benn Harradine (Macquarie Shores), Brandon Starc (Parramatta), Nick Hough (Hills), Ryan Gregson (Albion Park), Madeline Heiner (Wollongong City), Jenny Blundell (Cherrybrook), Anneliese Rubie (Manly Warringah), Lisa Corrigan, Adam Rutter (Hornsby), Nicole Liestenschneider (Manly Warringah), Ella Nelson (Sutherland), Beki Lee (Minchinbury), David Geddes (Manly Warringah), Bronwyn Eagles (Camden), Debbie Sosimenko (Doonside), Petrina Price (Northern Illawarra and Helensburgh), Nick A’Hern (Campbelltown), Matt Beckenham (Queanbeyan) and Stephanie Price (North Rocks Carlingford).
David Tarbotton for Little Athletics NSW