In October 1968, the first shoots of Little Athletics in NSW appeared when competition at the first Centre, Randwick Botany, commenced. Two years later, during the summer of 1970/71, the interest was growing with another seven Centres opened their doors, Blacktown, Sutherland, Eastern Suburbs, Deniliquin, Murrumbidgee (Narrandera/Leeton), Manly Warringah and Hornsby. On December 8, 1970, NSW Little Athletics was formed.
Along with Randwick Botany, 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. It was a chaotic start with over 600 children and 80 parents turning up, but the interest was evident. In March 1970 a team of Randwick Botany athletes travelled to Melbourne to compete in a triangular interstate match against Victoria and WA Little Athletics State teams.
The first Randwick Botany President was Jack Freeman and Secretary George Soper. When Little Athletics NSW was formed in December 1970, two Randwick Botany committee members held key roles in the newly formed Association, with George Soper the Secretary and Jack Freeman the Treasurer. In addition, Chic Hensley, a legend of the Randwick Botany Athletics Club was named the inaugural Chairman of LANSW. Hensley, a distance runner in the ‘40s was a leading coach and administrator and served as Mayor of Botany. The Hensley Athletics Field was named in his honour.
The Centre had the original number one on their competition bib, in honour of their status as the first Centre in NSW. The Centre has been served by two outstanding administrators Tony and Judy Vecellio. Tony was around the Centre at the start when his son was an athlete. They eventually joined the committee and have been involved for 45 years, Tony for nearly 40 years as president. Other prominent administrators have included Dick Corish and Ray Singleton.
Randwick Botany continues to be a strong club, with an average of 500 children signing up each season. Some notable names that have raced around the local track in the blue and yellow include Mike Whitney, the Australian cricketer; former Australian netball captain Sue Kenny; Olympians Jane and Natalie Saville, Selma Kajan and Jess Thornton; as well as Rabbitohs Craig Wing, Beau Champion and John Sutton. Others have been David Mission Paul Singleton, Pat Kaine, Glen Rosen and Rob Hannah.
Blacktown Little Athletics Centre was not only one of the pioneer centres, they were prominent in the early years of the LANSW. The first NSW team to travel to the Interstate Team Championships (now titled Australian Little Athletics Championships) was in 1972, when Blacktown administrators Adele Whelan and Peter Shinnick were appointed managers. Whelan was the Centre’s inaugural Secretary and LANSW first female life member, while Shinnick, in 1973, was appointed the first paid LANSW employee as Secretary/Manager.
By the second year of operation, Blacktown was the largest Centre in western Sydney, with 570 members. The first president was Tony Jones and the first to be awarded life membership at the Centre in 1976. Two other early key administrators at the club were Deanna Rahill and Lee Irvine who was on the original LANSW steering committee in 1970. Another prominent administrator with the Centre was Dereck Fineberg. Awarded Centre life membership in 1992, he was LANSW President for seven years from 2007/08 season.
At the first State Championships in March 1971, Blacktown placed third. Their most successful first athlete was race walker Bev Wilkins who sadly passed away in 2020. She was a member of the first three NSW State teams, a rare feat, and would go on to win dozens of Australian titles and competed at the 1990 Commonwealth Games. Blacktown placed four athletes on the first state team in 1971 – Bev Wilkins, Brian Furness, J. Haines and Greg Rahill.
Over the decades many terrific athletes competed at the Centre, some are Olympian Fabrice Lapierre, Andrew Neville, Filoi Aokuso, Tracey Collins, Peter and David Beacroft, Annette Cavanagh, Rondelle Ryan and Anas Ganaba Abu.
The leading Centre in the south was Sutherland. Their first secretary was J Cook, with Mrs N Dalton taking on the role in the second season, where membership reached 499 athletes. Sutherland’s Penelope Bold was the NSW female manager for the first Interstate Match, held in April 1971.
Sutherland’s first two state champions, in 1971, were J Watson – U12 girls 1500m and A Dennis – U10 girls 100m and the Centre placed an outstanding third in the state championships point score. By 1974, they were up to second place, behind Hornsby. Sutherland’s first state team member was Sharon Hadfield in the 1972 team. She was the brother of Olympic decathlete Peter Hadfield. Their father, was a key person involved in the establishment of their competition track – Sylvania Waters Athletics Field, which would host two LANSW State Championships – 1987 and 1988.
Some leading athletes over the years have included Olympian Ella Nelson, Sonja Wennekes, Brooke Simpson, Lauren Carey, F McConnell, Wayne Wetherall and Louise Sheaves.
The prominence of Eastern Suburbs Little Athletics Centre is reflected in them awarded the number ‘2’ competition bib.
The Centre’s first secretary was Mrs J Winters, followed by Mrs B Hill in the second year. In the second year, they registered 682 members, making them the third-largest Centre in NSW. Eastern Suburb’s Wal Kitchen was the male manager for the first Interstate Match, held in April 1971.
M Powell was the first star of the club, winning gold in all four-track events in the U10 boys age at the 1971 State Championships. Also competing at those first championships was future Australian representative Liz Miller (nee Rose), winning a medal in the U7 50m, 70m and long jump.
Eastern Suburbs would wait until the fourth State Team to have their first representative, Louise Stenhouse. At State she had won the 200m and 400m and at the Interstate Teams Championship, she won the 400m and long jump and was second in the 200m. Her father B Stenhouse had been involved at the Centre from the early days.
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. Mr A Graham was their first secretary and in the second year he took on the role of President, while Mr R Quayle was the secretary. By the second season, 1971/72, they had grown to a fantastic 220 members. Except for the 1975/76 season, they have been an active Centre for athletes in the area.
They competed at the first NSW Championships, held in Sydney on 6-7 March 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. He was selected in the NSW team for the Interstate Meeting (now called ALAC), where he won bronze in the high jump, was fifth in the discus and sixth in the 60m hurdles.
Murrumbidgee was the second Country Centre to be launched in the inaugural year of Little Athletics in NSW. Their Centre’s first secretary was L Hughes, followed by Mr P Brown. In their second year, they had reached an amazing 327 registrations. In 1983/84, they changed their name to Leeton Little Athletics Centre.
Their first NSW State team representatives were Philip Hurst in 1974, followed by the first girl, Lyn Heath in 1976. At the State Championships, Hurst won the U12 triple jump and was third in the long. He was selected to represent in those events at the Interstate Match, held in Sydney. Heath was an outstanding field events athlete. At the State Championships she won the U12 high jump and placed in the long jump, shot put and discus. At the 1976 Interstate Match, held in Adelaide, she excelled, improving in the high jump and shot Put, to win both events.
Due to the long travel, Murrumbidgee didn’t contest the inaugural NSW Championships in 1971. In 1973 they won their first state medals, claiming five at the championships, the lone gold was won by Philip Hurst in the U11 triple jump.
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 LANSW, noted ‘all Centres, with the possible exception of Manly-Warringah, which may still need a little supporting, are now firmly established’. Over the first few years Manly’s numbers were not as strong as other Centres, but they were still a competitive Centre, placing fifth in the 1974 State Championships point score. They remained a top-5 Centre for the next 15 years, but during the ‘90s dominated, winning the State Championships points score by staggering margins. They remain today a leading Centre.
Their first two State Team representatives, Belinda Ryan and B. Harrison were members of the 1972 team and they provided an outstanding four for the 1979 State Team. Over the next five decades Manly provided some of the very best athletes in the state team, some were: Cath Emmerson, Nicole Liestenschneider, Peter Elvy, David Geddes, Kristie Edwards, Peter Mapstone, Alex Willett, Amanda Thomas, James Watson, Emma and Amy Bettiol.
Their first secretary was Bryan Kinny, who would go on to hold the position as Registrar of LANSW for three years from the 1973/74 season. The Centre’s list of Life Members includes some of the outstanding names of athletics in NSW, ranging from officials to coaches and administrators, including Len & Barbara Horwood, Bev Jaye, Laurie Hamilton, Ross Selvage and Terry Arnold.
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.
Hornsby was fortunate to have the guidance of Graeme and Margaret Allen, who had recently come to Sydney from Nunawading, Victoria, for Hornsby to adopt the Victorian “Billingham” model with Clubs forming the Centre. This model enabled Hornsby to grow to 1297 children registered in the third year of operation and so become a most successful Centre dominating the State Championships and Relays Championship point scores.
At the Association’s first AGM in 1972, Grahame Down was appointed Chairman, Board of Management, charged with the operational responsibilities of the Association. On the death of the Association Secretary, George Soper, Graeme and Margaret Allen filled the secretarial duties pending the appointment of a Secretary. Later Grahame Down became Association Treasurer and Stan Hamley who was initially appointed Assistant Secretary, then in 1973 became Financial Affairs Board Member.
For the third official State Team, Hornsby provided seven of the 20 selected athletes. Hornsby dominated the State Championships point score for a decade. Another administrator of the Centre was Arnold Hunt, who was Chairman of LANSW for a decade in the 1980s and 1990s. Others from the Centre to make contributions to LANSW included Bob Quail, Vic Sparks, Keith Garling and Col Joyce
Individually, the Centre had some of the very finest athletes in NSW history. One was Graham Garnett, a current leading coach who, nearly five decades later, still holds state records set in 1973 as an U7. Another was Darren Clark who would go on to make an Olympic final and set the still current Australian 400 metres record.
Here are just some of the other standout members: Paul Gilbert, Margaret Hamley, Glenn MacLaughlan, Neil Newstead, Janine Shepherd, Lyndal Garling, Helen Pynor, Darren Clark, Kim Thorley, Lucette King, Sascha Walkley, Matthew O’Donnell, Samantha Brown, Adam Rutter, Jennifer Truscott, Alex Pettigrew, Ben and Krista Janniste, Caryn Beales, Mallory Bassett, Jon Harwood, Joshua Lodge, Mellissa Harris, Courtney Cross, Mark Watts, Katrina Tarrant and Mark Lever.
David Tarbotton for NSW Little Athletics
Image: Three of the pioneer Centre at the 1975 State Championships march past – Randwick Botany, Eastern Suburbs and Manly Warringah.