Dunbabin blazed the trail for Tassie

Penny Dunbabin packs her bags for the LA Olympics in 1984.  Dunbabin lost her battle with cancer earlier this week.
Penny Dunbabin packs her bags for the LA Olympics in 1984. Dunbabin lost her battle with cancer earlier this week.

TASMANIA has lost one of its most distinguished and versatile athletes with the death of Penny Dunbabin.

Dunbabin (nee Gray), who died on Wednesday after a long battle with cancer, achieved the rare feat of representing Australia in two sports and helped pave the way for the glut of national hockey representatives the state has since produced.

Selected as a 1500-metre runner for the 1980 Moscow Olympics squad but denied the chance to compete by her nation's boycott, Dunbabin attended the next Olympics in Los Angeles as a hockey player.

The first Tasmanian to achieve this, she opened the floodgates with Maree Fish, Daniel Sproule, Matthew Wells, David Guest, Eddie Ockenden, Kim Walker and Tim Deavin all since gracing hockey's ultimate stage and amassing 10 medals between them.

"I guess she started what has now become a wonderful tradition where Tasmanians punch above their weight in terms of Olympic representatives," said long-time teammate and friend Minka Woolley.

"She was our first hockey Olympian which was pretty significant, but she worked really hard to achieve what she did.

"She came through at a time when it was not easy to play for Australia from Tasmania, but she made the most of her opportunities.

"There was not as much assistance then and she achieved a lot of this on her own which made the achievement all the more special."

Tributes flowed from the hockey and athletics communities yesterday for the 55-year-old mother-of-three who became a member of the Tasmanian Sporting Hall of Fame in 1987 and was an inaugural member of the Tamar Churinga hall of fame last year.

Tamar president Phil Deavin said Dunbabin was "a great Australian sporting icon" while Athletics Tasmania executive officer Brian Roe called her a "great achiever".

Born in Launceston on October 12, 1958, Penny Gray attended West Launceston Primary School, Prospect High and Launceston College before going to university in Hobart.

She began her athletics career with sisters Robyn, Amanda and Lisa at Newstead Women's Harriers before they became founding members of the Riverside Club, which enjoyed great success under the coaching leadership of her late father, John.

"Penny was Tasmania's first female athlete to excel at a high level in middle-distance running and paved the way for many to follow her with success to national and international level," Roe said.

She broke state and Australian records for the 800m and 1500m, becoming national champion on six occasions.

In 1979 she was ranked number one in Australia for the 1500m and at the national titles recorded the country's second fastest time of 4.17.09.

Dunbabin's personal bests still rank her fourth and third respectively on the Tasmanian all-time lists for 800 and 1500m.

Roe added: "The Tasmanian under-18 and under-20 records for both 800m and 1500m still stand in her name - demonstrating the high standards Penny achieved as a youth and junior athlete - always off a solid winter preparation of training and playing hockey."

Dunbabin played hockey for Tasmania as an under-18 in 1973, going on to make the senior state team from 1976 to 1986, as captain in 1981 and '86.

In 1982, she was selected in the Australian women's hockey squad and two years later reached the Olympics, featuring in the bronze medal match which Australia lost on penalties to the host nation.

A fellow school teacher, Woolley played against Dunbabin in state under-18 teams and club matches and then alongside her for a decade at Devonport and in the state team.

"When she came to play hockey with us in Devonport she knew how to work hard and instilled that into us," Woolley said.

"She was fantastic, a good coach, a great role model and highly competitive.

"We were inspired by the way she trained and how she helped people develop their skills."

Deavin said the Gray family had been great supporters of Tamar Churinga, the four sisters having played together and their mum Anne serving as patron.

"We're deeply saddened by the news and our thoughts and prayers go out to the family," he said.

"Penny was a great club member and a great Australian sporting icon having represented the country in two sports.

"As the first Tasmanian ever to play hockey for Australia in an Olympics, she really blazed a trail with so many following her.

"She was an icon of our club and of hockey Australia wide."

Tamar players will wear armbands as a mark of respect in today's game against South Burnie at St Leonards.

Dunbabin, who retained a close association with athletics as organiser of the Southern primary schools carnivals, is survived by three children, Amelia, Hamish and Angus, and husband Tim.

A private cremation will be held along with a gathering of friends and family at the Tasmanian Hockey Centre in New Town on Friday, June 6.


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