Professional athletics, The Stawell Gift and Luke Stevens – Stories untold

John Henry, Luke Stevens

John Henry, Luke Stevens

The Stawell Gift is a professional sprint race and part of the rich circuit that is the Victorian Athletic League.

With its origins said to be among the working class of the Victorian goldfields, professional sprinting or Pedestrianism, is for the down to earth.

Raced on grass football ovals across Victorian towns and cities, professional sprinting has the unusual distinction of being an elite sport for everyone. Its inclusive, embraces new participants and it rewards those athletes that invest in the sport.

You don’t have to be the best in the world to compete, but success in professional athletics requires an elite attitude and it’s been the same for 150 years.

Not everybody succeeds and like the Melbourne Cup, it’s not always the best runner that wins. Not everybody can win a ‘pro’ race and a lot don’t. Many have tried.

There has always been a divide between professional athletics and amateur athletics. Like religion, it wasn’t long ago that the two sports were segregated, separated and somewhat detached. To run ‘pro’ meant being barred from running amateur athletics, and the opportunity to represent your state or country.

Years ago you were either an amateur runner, or you were a professional athlete, there was no debate.

It’s different now, both disciplines mix freely and it’s how it should be.

With Stawell being the biggest race on the ‘pro’ sporting calendar and a mainstay of the professional running code, it’s surprising that they seem to maintain a strict focus on promoting amateur athletes.

With a full year of professional athletics preceding this year’s 135th running of the Stawell Gift, the recognition of ‘pro’ athletes has been sparse at best.

All spectators enjoy seeing our most elite athlete’s visit Stawell but there have been great stories to come out of the 2015\16 Victorian athletic season that have been good enough to warrant a random tweet or even a Facebook mention.

Maybe we only need look to the New Years Day Maryborough Gift winner Dylan Panizza. Dylan’s father is a West Australian football league legend.

Could the winner of the Rye and Ballarat Gifts this year, Noddy Angelakos be worth a mention? Surely winning two Gifts in a calendar year is worth even a casual Facebook remark.

What about Craig Foley, the son of two time Stawell Gift winner Barry Foley. Craig won the rich Keilor Gift in February. A very good story in the making.

Keeping in mind these are just the sprinters, imagine the carefully crafted memoirs of the distance athletes.

For such a historical event, worrying is the lack of recognition for well performed ‘pro’ athletes at Stawell.

Another story that has seemingly fallen through the cracks is that of 21 year old Luke Stevens.

Stevens balances being a professional athlete with international potential, and discovered his elite sprinting prowess via professional athletics.

Running the rather unique 550 metres event at Stawell this weekend, Stevens is being groomed by professional running coach and 55 year veteran of the Stawell Gift, John Henry.

Unbeaten this season on the amateur circuit, the Victorian 400 metre champion has a personal best of 46.06 seconds in the 400 metres, and 10.7seconds in the 100 metres.

Understated, easy going and self-effacing, Stevens is a nice guy first, and an athlete second.

Talking to him on the phone this week, he spoke of his family. Nice guys do that. His sister Kirsty is a promising athlete herself and got a second placing at the Bendigo Women’s Gift only two weeks ago.

With his sister training in the John Henry stable, the Hoppers crossing reserves footballer and tennis player, casually followed her to a training session two years ago, in the hope he could get a bit fitter.

The rest they say is history.

For John Henry, Stevens was a revelation.

“When he arrived at training he was a skinny type of lad, so there was nothing to suggest he had the speed he had. After one run I thought to myself, what have we got here”, Henry laughed.

Not one to hype athletes, John Henry feels the arrival of Stevens was something special.

“We haven’t had a runner like him come along since Brimacombe”.

Steve Brimacombe won the 1991 Stawell Gift and went on to represent Australia at the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games.

For Luke Stevens, it’s a simple love of running that inspires him.

“I just want to run the best I can. I really like the ‘pro’ races but I also want to see how good I can be running as an amateur”, he said.

“I am not worried about Rio or anything really, I just want to keep improving. In actual fact I probably won’t hit my peak until I am 25, so I have a few years left yet”.

Two weeks ago at the Bendigo Gift, Stevens ran the fastest professional 400 metres run on grass in over 14 years.

With a blistering time of 45.85, and running off the scratch mark, Stevens’ time is second only to Paul Pierce who ran a time of 45.52 seconds on the same Bendigo track in 2002.

With a focus on running as fast as he can in every race, the Physiotherapy student has won both state championships and professional Gifts, and rather uniquely has multiple highlights across both disciplines.

“The highlight of my athletics career so far has been representing Australia at the IAAF world relay championships, and in my professional career it would be winning the Albury\Wodonga Gift twice and two-time athlete of the year”.

Since his first professional outing, a 300 metre race on the sand at the Melton trots, the Tarneit local now stares at a potential berth at Rio directly in the face, although he first needs to run a qualifying time of 45.4 seconds.

Flying the flag for both professional and amateur athletes, Luke Stevens is but one good story among thousands in the sport of professional athletics.

The Stawell Gift is a single cog, in the wheel of a larger machine and with over 150 years of history to draw upon, finding ‘pro’ stories should not be difficult.

About David Griffin

Lover of coffee, sport and human endeavour. A writer and life enthusiast with a shameless admiration for dogged persistent people that get 'stuff' done.

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