The Call of Stawell

It was youthful exuberance. They were inspired by what they had just witnessed; the history, the human story, the athleticism. It would be Easter Monday afternoon, the final of the Gift had been run and won, the men had dashed down the famous Stawell track in their beautifully coloured silk vests, and a new name had gone onto the honour board and become etched into our memories. Every year someone would say it; one of my brothers or one of our mates. They would invariably utter the words as they exited through the ornate iron gates at the entrance to Central Park in Stawell, home of the Stawell Gift.


“Right, I’m getting fit. I’m going to have a crack at the Gift.”


I always had a giggle to myself. By this stage I’d had my (unsuccessful) crack at Stawell. The truth of the matter was that this comment was probably just VB bravado. It was a dubious commitment made without a thought for the work that needed to go in; the cold 5 kilometre runs on dark winter mornings, the relentless gym sessions doing weights and flexibility work, the seven day regimen that required a near abstinence from booze and nightlife (fun), the vomiting over the footy ground fence in late Spring/early Summer as the training cranked up and the consecutive 300 metre trials were run, and the knowledge that a proper preparation could be three or four years in the making.


I recall in the mid-1980s my old mate Sean (ex-Gold Coast real estate salesman complete with the crocodile skin boots) decided that he would give it a go. Sean was a sensational athlete but “long term” for Seany wasn’t three or four years hence, it was next Thursday fortnight. I worried that he might not get through the work. He turned up for his first training session and ran a few warm up laps with us, then he went across the ground to do a bit of work on his own (as we were a lot more advanced in our fitness). After a few minutes I saw him approach my old man, who was training us, have a chat, and go to his car and leave.


“What happened to Seany?” I asked Dad.


“Bad chaffing” said Dad.


Seany went into immediate retirement.


When I was a kid I had the Stawell Gift in my sights. I wanted to win it. Badly. But not because I was interested in the money. The real reason was that I wanted to wear the silk vests and the handmade leather spikes. And when the race was over I wanted to be chaired from the end of the track to the dais by all my mates, knowing that I was now part of something extraordinary. I wanted to be photographed with my arms raised and the glorious sash draped over my shoulders. I wanted to drown in the history of the event and the history of the whole carnival. On Easter Monday, after the final, after the crowds had left, I would dash around the concrete apron the spreads from the old grandstand to about full forward at the scoreboard end of the ground, and in my mind I would be running in the final. I would be off the back mark, chasing the others down, storming into athletic immortality. And when I reached the scoreboard I would thrust my arms up in the air in a grandiose victory salute. I couldn’t wait to be older. I just couldn’t wait.


We would camp every year out the back of the camping ground, miles away from the toilets and showers but also miles away from the camping ground office and reception. We therefore escaped the camping fees. That alone kept my old man happy. Dad would cook up tins of braised steak and boiled potatoes for tea and we would hover closely around the camp fire as the chill from the Grampians began to creep its way into our bones. And when the weekend was over we would bury the Clifton Bricks that we used as a stand for the hotplate, and upon our return the following year we would dig them up again, build our little BBQ and let another Easter wash over us.


Dad would tell a few stories of his running days. We heard about the old track greats like Barney Ewell, J.D. Stony, and G.R. Hutchinson. We heard about his trainer Jimmy West and the great punting stings he would try and pull off (in 1955 they pulled off a huge one). And we compared Dad’s running heroes to our own like J.L. Ravelomananstoa, W. Edmonson, W.G. (Bill) Howard, and B.P. Moss. There is nothing quite as bright as the sparkle in a kid’s eyes around a camp fire.


I got older, got married and had kids. They came with me to Stawell every year. They still do. This year we will have quite a crew around the camp fire. Maybe 20 in all; brothers, mates, nephews, and maybe a niece or two? And my old mate Seany will be there, fully recovered from his bout of chaffing in the 1980s. Stawell is in his blood too. Sadly my old man can no longer make the journey as age has caught up and camping beds are no longer fun for his 83 year old bones, but he started quite some tradition all those years ago. His victory in the 1955 Stawell Gift was not the end of his connection with Stawell but the beginning of something that has lasted for decades. It is a tradition that we hold dear.


Stubbies will go down over Easter, stories will be told, the form in the Gift will be analysed, and heaps of footy banter will prevail. That’s Stawell nowadays. It’s wonderful. And importantly we camp a lot closer to the toilets and showers these days.


I can’t wait to get there. I just can’t wait.

About Damian O'Donnell

I'm passionate about breathing. And you should always chase your passions. If I read one more thing about what defines leadership I think I'll go crazy. Go Cats.


  1. Dips, love it! Having attended several Gifts and knowing the history and tradition there is nothing like the Stawell Gift, Calcutta on Friday, heats and hopes on Saturday, recovery Sunday and the business on Monday. Have a great weekend.

  2. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says

    There might be some stray Krause Bricks a few blocks away if you can’t find those Clifton ones Dips. Go well.

  3. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says
  4. I don’t even have to say “Have a great weekend, old mate” because I know that you will.

  5. Wonderful stuff Dips. Growing up in the 60’s the Stawell Gift was a part of the Australian Sporting mythology – the Gift; the Flag; the Cup; the Ashes. Like the Pope they didn’t need a first name.
    Came over from Adelaide twice in the 70’s and stayed at Halls Gap in the shadow of the majestic Grampians; including the year Ravelo won off scratch. The bookies ring betting on the city races as much as the Gift. Lost a packet when Double Century took the AJC Derby off Dulcify on protest. Only took another 30 years to work out that was a mug’s game.
    Can’t find where I left my glasses but 40 years ago is crystal clear.

  6. Enjoy your weekend Dips. Sounds like a grand tradition you have there. Hopefully many more years to come of enjoyment for your family.

  7. Great story.
    Its the history of this event that makes it special.
    Our individual stories that wrap around the Stawell Gift make it important.
    I have often thought about putting together a book with stories like this……would you be keen Dips?
    Maybe we can catch up this weekend?
    Enjoy it.
    David G

  8. Cheers lads.
    Swish that old newspaper story is magnificent. We have the original paper still.
    David G I would love to catch up at Stawell. On Saturday and Monday you’ll find us standing on the finish tape side of the old grandstand. We smell like camp fire smoke so keep your nose open! The book sounds like a great idea.

  9. Cat from the Country says

    This brings back memories of when I was a kid in the 60’s going to Stawell at Easter with my family.
    My grand dad Arthur Parson was a Stalwart of the gift. He lived at 10 Allen Cres Stawell. His Aunty Win lived right next to the back gate of Central Park..
    Those were the days my friends!?

  10. Peter Flynn says

    Need to go one year.

    Great read Dips.

    A smoky?


  11. Well done Damo. Great read while I’m devouring my hamburger at the Bordertown Caltex, on my way to you know where.
    See ya there

  12. Keiran Croker says

    Have fun down there Dips. I really must go one year.

    I enjoyed reading about your Dad’s win the in the Age of the day. Also interesting to read the VFL updates and news of the Test in Port of Spain!

  13. Peter Fuller says

    Concur with most of the comments. My sole demurrer is your description of your own crack – 3rd in the final isn’t unsuccessful, imo.
    All he best for the weekend, including for the ears you have on the broadcast from the G on Monday after the Gift Final.

  14. Malcolm Ashwood says

    Great stuff Dips love the tradition and concur totally with,Peter above

  15. Luke Reynolds says

    Brilliant Dips.
    Sadly couldn’t make it to Stawell this year, am watching keenly on TV. Genuinely rate the Gift as one of the best sporting events you can attend as a spectator. To watch my brother in law Adam Coote make the final and finish 3rd in 2012 made for such a wonderful, nervous, exciting day. Like you I’m sure he wonders what could have been had he won, but we remain super proud of his efforts.

  16. Gillian Coote says

    Great tale! The Stawell gift has a magic of its own and there is nothing like actually being there and soaking up the atmosphere!

  17. Annmarie presswood says

    The 1970s was the era of the professional runner I remember watching my dad John presswood run in many of Australia’s foot races but the stawell gift meant everything to him he ran as a back runner which was harder handicap on grass back then I’m proud of my dad to this day let’s hope the stawell gift keeps on inspiring other young people with dreams!

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