Remember Lauren Burns, Tom King and Belinda Stowell? They won gold at...

Remember Lauren Burns, Tom King and Belinda Stowell? They won gold at the Sydney 2000 Olympics too

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You remember where you were when Cathy Freeman won gold in the 400 metres at the Sydney Olympics.

You watched Ian Thorpe win the 400 metres freestyle in world record time on the first night of competition.

Australia won 58 medals at the Sydney Games: 16 gold, 25 silver and 17 bronze — its biggest haul.

The massive build-up and the unprecedented focus on gold medals ensured the team had its rock stars: Freeman, Thorpe, Hackett, Perkins and O’Neill. All won gold.

But, so did many others who were never under that intense spotlight.

Now, 20 years on, those athletes are reflecting on their 15 minutes of fame. Some are sanguine, while others wonder why they didn’t get more recognition.

Lauren Burns: Women’s taekwondo 49kg division gold medal

A woman stands on a balcony holding a cup or tea and looks at the camera.
Burns won the first medal in taekwondo, which was making its Olympic debut.(ABC News)

Lauren Burns seemingly came from nowhere to win gold in taekwondo in her 49kg division. It was the first medal in the sport, which was making its Olympic debut.

Burns’ moment of fame was boosted by the incongruous connections that media love to make. She’s the daughter of the singer and songwriter, Ronnie Burns, who was a household name in Australia in the 60s and 70s.

But aside from starting taekwondo because her father and brother were doing it, Burns was entirely her own woman.

The fact that it was a new Olympic sport meant she had barely any official funding.

“I had a sponsorship with an organic vegetable shop,” Burns said.

“My first tournament was in New York (in 1993). It was actually at Madison Square Garden, which was pretty crazy. But we had to pay our way, we paid part of our flights, we paid for our tracksuit.”

However, the financial hardship was outweighed by the sheer delight that after more than a decade in the sport, taekwondo finally had a place in the Olympics.

“There was never really an expectation like ‘oh I should have that much attention or our sport should have that sort of spotlight,’ because we’d never had it,” she said.

The final itself went off without a hitch as Burns beat her Cuban opponent Urbia Melendez by four points to two.

A coach lifts a woman and they both smile.
Burns and her coach Jin Tae Jeong after winning the gold medal.(Reuters: Kimimasa Mayama)

“I just had this incredible, single-minded, myopic focus on winning gold — so that was what I was really there to do,” she said.

“It wasn’t until I came off and my coach grabbed me, and I was running around the stadium, and it was it like ‘Yes, I did it’.”

The next day was a blur as the media interviews came thick and fast.

“I did so many that I lost my voice,” she said.

“I ended up getting some strapping tape and I just put it over my mouth because I needed people to see that I just couldn’t speak.”

Burns retired straight after the Olympics and threw herself into numerous projects — particularly public speaking.

“I was on such a high and it was like I was on the hamster wheel and I said yes to everything. Write a book? Great. Finish a uni degree? I’ll do that.

“I always had a bag in the hallway because I was travelling interstate all the time and never really knew where I was.”

It took five years for her to slow down.

“I stopped and went ‘woah’, and that’s when I kind of had that reflection of you know, who am I without my sport? Who am I if I’m not Lauren the taekwondo girl?”

Burns finished her degree in naturopathy and nutrition, and continued her public speaking career — which has only now been curtailed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Tom King: Sailing 470 class gold medal with Mark Turnbull

A man stands in front of a tree and smiles for the camera.
King and Turnbull’s gold medal was overshadowed by walker Jane Saville’s disqualification from her race.(ABC News: Stephen Cavenagh)

Tom King and his crewmate Mark Turnbull didn’t so much fly under the radar as sail under it.

Australia hadn’t had a competitor in the 470 class at the Olympics since 1984, so King and Turnbull did well just to make the team for Atlanta in ’96, where they finished 23rd.

But by 2000, King knew they were good enough to win gold.

Unlike some of the other high-profile medal chances, the pair deliberately chose to stay incognito.

“We weren’t doing it for media profile and fame and fortune, we were training to try and win the Olympic gold medal because that’s what we wanted to achieve,” he said.

It was all about executing a plan. During nine races across more than a week, they did that perfectly — achieving victory in the final race of the regatta.

“We had our highlight about halfway through the race when we managed to catch the American team who won silver, right off Bradley’s Head, in front of a very big crowd,” he said.

“For us that was an extraordinary experience because we’d never had a crowd attend any of our events.”

Two men smile while on a sailing boat on Sydney Harbour.
King and Turnbull after taking gold in the men’s 470 fleet race.(AAP: Dean Lewins)

But their moment in the spotlight was short lived, as another event stole the headlines. The Australian walker, Jane Saville, had been disqualified from the 20 kilometre race just as she was about to enter the Olympic Stadium to claim gold.

“It certainly frustrated me a little bit. I think I felt we were deserving of more recognition than we got,” King said.

“There were some experiences in the days that followed in the aftermath of the games that were pretty disappointing in terms of the lack of acknowledgement when the media was being dominated by the swimmers and other athletes.”

It’s a bugbear for King, who says he was conscious of an “us and them” mentality within the Australian Olympic team.

“That’s not to say that many of the swimmers aren’t deserving of that attention … but there are so many other athletes that have achieved similar levels of success in their disciplines whose achievements for some reason haven’t received the same kind of attention. That’s been sad in a way.”

King retired from sailing after the Olympics and struggled with depression as he tried to find his place in the world outside of the rigid confines of elite sport.

“I found it very difficult. It took me really five or six years to get comfortable or confident in a business environment,” he said.

Post-athletic career welfare remains a passionate topic for King, who served for a time as the chairman of the Australian Olympic Committee Athletes’ Commission and the AOC board.

Now he’s a successful fund manager and looks back with immense pride at what he achieved, not only in winning gold at the Sydney Olympics, but in paving the way for a generation of sailors who came after him.

“It was an extraordinary event for Australia,” he said.

Belinda Stowell: Sailing 470 class gold medal with Jenny Armstrong

Two women look at each other and smile in front of sailing boats at a marina.
Belinda Stowell (left) says the lack of recognition at the time didn’t phase her.(AAP: Dean Lewins)

Belinda Stowell won her gold medal with crewmate Jenny Armstrong, just hours before Tom King. It was an incredible day for Australian sailing at the Olympics.

Stowell’s journey began in her native Zimbabwe when she was just four.

“You’re out sailing, and hippos are making their noises in the bay,” she said.

“In some ways I guess it probably made me really observant.”

She emigrated to Australia when she was 19 and took up sailing seriously, deciding in 1995 that winning a gold medal would become her sole focus.

“I was probably obsessive about winning gold — probably to prove something to myself to be the best in the world,” she said.

“Being able to have that one driver almost helps you lift yourself off the canvas. There were definitely ups and downs — and significant downs at moments.”

The lack of money was one.

“I slept on people’s floors … from Cronulla to Palm Beach,” she said.

And she battled for years with a chronic injury to her shoulder — arguably the most important joint in the body for a sailor.

“My shoulder was subluxing (partially dislocating) about five or six times a race.

“From 1998 I saw a surgeon and he said, ‘you’ve got to have seven months out to have an operation, your shoulder is like ice on a plate’. And I said, ‘I’m about to go into my Olympic trials so it’s just not an option.’ I remember on the bus home from the surgeon just bawling my eyes out.”

She opted against the operation until after the Games and won gold with the help of a team of physios and the support of her crewmate, Armstrong.

Two women sit on a competitive sailing boat on Sydney Harbour.
Armstrong and Stowell during the race in which they won gold for Australia.(AAP: Dean Lewins)

“We had the glorious moment of winning the last race and winning the regatta at the same time,” Stowell said.

Like King, her moment in the sun was partially eclipsed by Jane Saville’s disqualification.

But that lack of recognition compared to the star athletes and swimmers never mattered to Stowell.

“I didn’t really mind, because I looked up to those athletes so much and used them for inspiration,” she said.

“I thought I was the bees’ knees, because I also got a stamp with my head on it and we got $10,000 from Australia Post.”

Unlike Burns and King, Stowell continued in her sport, sailing at the 2004 Olympics in Athens — where she and Armstrong finished 14th. She even made a comeback to compete at the 2012 London Games, finishing 7th.

For the last 16 years she has coached sailing at the Western Australian Institute of Sport.

As for her gold medal?

“It means that I was the best in the world for two weeks,” she reflected.



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