Star quality remembered

IF THIS weekend's inaugural IAAF World Relay Championships had been held 30 years ago, Penny Dunbabin might have been the first selected for Australia.

That is, of course, had she not been preparing to represent Australia in the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles - although even that might not have stopped her.

For Penny, who sadly died this week at just 55 years of age after a long and brave battle with intestinal cancer, was a star at both sports.

Australia has sent a strong middle distance team to the Bahamas and could figure in the placings in both the women's 4x800 and 4x1500 metres relays.

Penny would have been a critical member of such a team. It would have been no problem for her to back up and run both distances within the required 24 hours. She was not especially quick, but unbelievably strong.

Above all she was fit permanently so. For Penny readied herself for the summer athletics season by preparing for and playing hockey in the winter and for the winter hockey season by training five days a week for athletics and religiously competing every Saturday.

Although Ellyse Perry achieves a similar feat on a yearly basis by playing both soccer and cricket at all levels through to international, most pundits and coaches would say it was impossible.

Penny's late father and athletics coach John would have just laughed at that sort of concept.

John Gray was an innovative coach, years ahead of his time who trained all his athletes, whatever their event, at the same time often requiring them all to do the same session.

Penny was the star of the squad but there were many other high achievers within it, inspired by the culture and no-nonsense approach to training. If it can't be done in an hour, it isn't worth doing, was a typical John Gray mantra.

John ensured that when Penny ultimately opted for hockey as the path to her Olympic dream, she was the fittest in the team. It meant that Penny was able to buck the trend of moving to the mainland to improve her chances of gaining international selection.

She was Tasmanian-made in every respect.

Like her father, Penny was a no-nonsense person - always happy to tell it as it was and never one to beat around the bush.

You never had to wonder what she was thinking and mostly you didn't even have to ask.

She stood on the victory dais at the Australian Athletics Championships on an amazing 15 occasions six times on the top step. Penny was national junior champion at 800 metres three years in a row, displaying her precocious talent from any early age.

Today's best youth athletes at national level, despite better facilities and much greater opportunities, struggle to match her times, nearly 40 years on.

In the '70s and '80s track and field athletes had realistically only two major international opportunities - the Commonwealth and Olympic Games.

There were no World Youth or Junior Championships, no Youth Olympic or Commonwealth Games, no World Relay Championships in fact not even any World Championships until 1983. Had there been, Penny may well have been a track and field Olympian rather than in her greater love of hockey, or perhaps even in both.

She will be greatly missed but very honourably remembered with much respect as a true sporting champion.

Brian Roe.

Brian Roe.

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