‘Dual Gift Winner Relives The Dream……’ by KB Hill

 

‘Oh how warm the summer night

As athletes gather beneath the light,

The arena is dimmed for the final race,

The runners are ready and take their place.

‘Does he remember the tension out on the line,

Leaving the blocks right on time,

Legs stretched out in motion,

Running like a machine,

Did he really win,

Or was it a dream………..’

 

***

 

You’d be hard-pressed to find a greater advocate of the Wangaratta Athletic Carnival than Jason Boulton.

 

Back when he was a ‘whippersnapper’, he’d count off the days leading up to each Australia Day weekend. Give him a chance and he’ll recount the deeds of those champion cycling locals Woodsy and Clarkey, and regale you with tales about big names like Steven Pate, who could gather up the field in the back straight and sweep to victory.

 

And, of course, not to forget those charismatic woodchoppers.

 

But he was completely captivated by the athletes: “When the floodlights would focus on the Gift track and the field was introduced, a hush would fall over the huge crowd – the atmosphere was electric,” he says.

 

He remembers one occasion, as an 11-year-old, that perhaps fired his ambitions to become a pro runner.

 

He’d been swimming down at the Ovens River and popped in to catch a glimpse of the Showgrounds One Carnival-eve. “A big American negro by the name of Kipper Bell was practising his starts and got yapping to me…….Geez, could he run !…….I think he’d won a Powderhall Gift in Scotland a few months earlier……He certainly left an impression on me….”

 

***

 

Jason had shown some talent in Little Athletics, drifted off to try cricket for a couple of years, played in a Junior League footy flag for Centrals, then had a season with Wangaratta Thirds.

 

But footy was off the agenda when he underwent three shoulder reconstructions. Besides, he’d started a building apprenticeship with L.H.Brown Constructions. Running seemed a much sounder sporting option for the young fellah.

 

But still the shoulders continued to cause him grief. He was at Keilor, limbering up for a 100m race once, when it popped out. He was desperately trying to knock it back into place. Greg O’Keeffe, who was competing in the same heat, said: “You’d better pull out. The stewards will think you’re putting one over ‘em.”

 

“But I just stabilised the arm with my other hand and ran okay, actually. Finished just out of a place, I think.”

 

He fitted in like a glove on the pro circuit, training firstly with Jack Gannon and Scotty Hargreaves, then under Bernie Grealy………And began to chalk up a few wins.

 

Stawell, he says, never held the same appeal for him that it did for most in the running game. He remembers running third in a Bill Howard 100m Novice, and also finishing in third place in the Jack Donaldson 200m Handicap.

 

“Trouble was, being such a long season, I struggled to stay in one piece. When Stawell came around I was usually stuffed. I made five Gift semis and got beaten on the line one year. That was the closest I came to a Stawell Final.”

 

“Anyway, Wangaratta was my Stawell.”

 

By 1996, at Wang, Jason was flying. He took out the 70m Warby Sprint and won his way through to the Gift Final alongside the local veteran – and crowd favourite – Greg O’Keeffe. The thought floated through his mind….Could this be the realisation of a boyhood dream ?

 

Alas, he finished second, pipped by the Scotchman, Kevin Hanlon, by six inches.

 

He headed to Sydney for a six-month break not long after, then found work as a builder in Melbourne. It led to him hitching up with well-known trainer Evan Armstrong, who also happened to be Hanlon’s coach.

 

“I got to know Kevin pretty well,” says Jason. “His is a familiar story. He came out to Australia to run in the ‘95/‘96 season, grew to like the place, and stayed.”

 

“Training with him brought out the best in me. But Evan Armstrong was a hard taskmaster, very intense. I struggled to stay fit.”

 

His lead-up to the Wangaratta Carnival in 1997 didn’t provide much cause for excitement. He incurred a slight injury at the Burnie meet over Christmas and performed well-below his best at Ringwood in early January.

 

The Armstrong stable had Hanlon pencilled in to win back-to-back Gifts. A sizeable portion of the crowd shared that opinion.

 

But Jason had that ‘feeling’….So did his dad, who had backed him to win.

 

He grew an extra leg on his home track and won with plenty to spare.

 

“It was a great feeling. I think it was one of the last occasions that they ran it under the floodlights. I made a few Finals in my time, but Wang smashed them all for atmosphere,” he says.

 

That blue sash and the colours that he ran in became his proudest possessions. When his brother passed away in 2001, he buried them with the casket…………….

 

***

 

Jason’s love-affair with running waxed and waned. He admits he didn’t get all that enthused about winter training: “Injuries and laziness were my bugbear. I used to retire in April, then get itchy feet in October.”

 

He was also having trouble with stress foot fractures around 2001 and retired for keeps, or so he thought. But the bug caught him again. Another Boulton come-back eventuated in 2004.

 

A year later, he was again firing and within reach of another Wang Gift victory before fading in the closing stages of the Final to finish fifth.

 

The pro running diehards had written off the 33-year-old in 2006. But, for one of the few times in his career, he’d gone into the season injury-free and set himself to run well on his home track.

 

A rich vein of form in the lead-up saw him run third at Rye, second at Geelong, win the Wallan Gift early in the New Year, and take out the Ringwood Gift in mid-January.

 

And he made no mistake at Wangaratta, cruising to victory in 12.36 seconds, from 2004 winner Justin Lewis and Brendan Boyle.

 

Jason Boulton had entered the record-books as a dual Gift winner, emulating North Melbourne’s J.J.O’Sullivan (1927 and ‘29) and ex-VFL boundary-umpire Peter Saultry (1964 and ‘66).

 

 

*( Since then Albury’s Robert Ballard and Essendon’s Paul Tancredi have joined the trio. Ballard won in 2009, following his triumph in 1989. Tancredi won successive Gifts in 2015 and ‘16 ).

 

Jason finally hung up the spikes in 2007: “I went back to the doctors about my feet. They started talking about having a series of cortisone injections. I said: ‘Nah, I won’t worry,’ and moved on.”

 

 

Still working in the building industry, as an estimator with Hadar Homes, he remains deeply involved in Athletics. He has coached Johnny Adams (a fourth place-getter in the 2014 Stawell Gift) and Isabelle Long from Mulwala (a two-time National 400m Hurdles winner).

 

 

He also guides some local youngsters, as well as his own four kids . He and Renee have 8-year-old twins, Isabella and Will, Jack (15) and Gabriella ( 18 ).

 

The twins compete in Little Aths of a Friday night whilst Gab has already made her mark at the Wang Carnival, finishing second in the Women’s Gift last year.

 

 

Jack, a five-time National Age champion and current Australian U16 400m record-holder, is an outstanding prospect, but Jason’s charting his progress carefully.

 

“He’s doing the pro circuit to learn how to run, how to back up and learn to be strong. People may look down their noses at the pros, but they’re a lot stronger and tougher than they’re given credit for,” his dad says.

 

Jack finished seventh in the final of the Rye Gift a fortnight ago. He had seven runs for the day at Maryborough on New Year’s Day. Jason says it took him about a week and a half to recover but it was great experience for the lad.

 

“I just make sure the kids enjoy themselves; I don’t put too much pressure on ‘em. They know there’s always bigger and better people around the corner who’ll test them,” he says.

 

Jack and Gabriella will both be competing at the Carnival this week-end. They’re probably tired of their dad regaling them with tales of how big it used to be.

 

“I was talking to the great Ricky Dunbar at Rye recently. He’s now a VAL official. Rick arrived in Australia from Scotland in 1966 and finished third in the Gift that year. He hasn’t missed a Wang Carnival since.”

 

“He told me they were paying to get into the Richardson Stand in those days. The place was packed.”

 

“That’s how big Wang was………”

 

 

 

This story appeared first on KB Hill’s website On Reflection. Read more of KB’s great stories about local sports identities by clicking here.

 

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Comments

  1. Terrific story KB. I’ve watched Jason run quite a few times over the years. Superb athlete.

    Found it interesting that he mentioned Kipper Bell. I raced Kipper in 1984 at Stawell.

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