‘Wangaratta’s anonymous Olympian……’ by KB Hill

 

The dogs are barking……….

 

I’m greeted by a demure 69-year-old when I knock on the door of this neat home in Wangaratta’s west.

 

Marion Gray admonishes her noisy Cavalier King Charles Spaniels, Olivia and Louisa, and explains that she’s heavily involved in the local Dog Club these days: “I’ve been showing and breeding dogs for many years….I teach Obedience of a Monday and Wednesday……..It’s my hobby .”

 

The Tokyo Olympics kick off tomorrow and Marion will spare a thought – with some trepidation – for what may transpire at these crowd-free, Covid-dominated, heavily-regulated Games.

 

Marion is Wangaratta’s ‘Anonymous Olympian.’………Forty-nine years ago, at the Munich Games, she represented Australia as a Fencer, in the Individual Women’s Foil event ……..

 

She stands just 5 feet 3 and three-quarter inches (“don’t forget the three-quarters”, she quips). The reminder of an outstanding career are two ‘shot’ knees and a replacement hip – the price that Fencers sometimes pay for their exaggerated lunging action in competition.

 

But there are also a treasure-trove of fond memories…………..

 

***

 

Young Marion Exelby was first introduced to Fencing at the age of 13, when she was attending the now-defunct Bentleigh High School.

 

“Our Sport Teacher was Mike O’Brien, who was an excellent Fencer. Because he’d trained – and qualified – as a Fencing Master, he was deemed a pro, which had ruled him out of eligibility for the Olympics.”

 

“The rules around amateurism were so strict in those days…… Even if you were given a piece of equipment for free (or sneezed twice in the wrong direction!) you were deemed a professional.”

 

“Mike (who’s now 91, and living in Queensland) was devoted to Fencing, and was a big factor in me deciding to embrace it,” Marion says.

Having been a talented swimmer, she easily adapted to the sport by implementing some of the routines, which had become second-nature to her……….like continuing to train six days a week, and compete on the seventh.

 

“It became the all-engulfing thing in my life……while I was at school…..doing HSC….even when I began to work at Monash University as a Lab Technician…….”

 

“I loved Fencing ……They’re both individual sports; swimming is very rhythmic, whilst Fencing is explosive…..A lot of concentration is involved.”

 

***

 

Marion rose rapidly through the ranks, and won the Victorian Junior championship virtually every year she competed.

 

In her final year, aged 18, she set herself a goal of not losing more than four points for the duration of the titles……She was dominant against some of the state’s finest – Chris McDonald, Helen Smith and Sandy Gibson……

 

Stamina, she emphasises, is a prime requisite for Fencing. At her first appearance at the National Championships, for instance, the competition started at 8am and finished at 2 o’clock the following morning.

 

“Whilst you’re competing you have to be totally honed in on what you’re doing…….You can’t get distracted……….I can remember fencing someone, and looking at them intently; then just for a split second their gaze went down…….That was the time to attack…..It’s what you’ve trained for…..”

 

“It’s a real mind game……You’re constantly keeping your distance, looking for an opportunity to attack, or counter-attack…..For the five minutes or so that you are fencing it’s very intense……”

 

“Physical endurance and mental concentration are crucial ingredients.”

 

Marion’s Gold Medal in the Individual Foil at the 1970 National Titles earned her selection in the nine-person Commonwealth Games Fencing squad for Edinburgh in 1970. It was a huge thrill.

 

 

“ It was my first trip away, and I was one of the youngest in the team……..We had to contribute towards our air fares and equipment. Luckily for me, Mike, my coach paid his own way over, which was a big advantage.”

 

 

 

She moved through the elimination rounds, and into the Individual Foil Finals, eventually finishing equal first on wins and losses with English competitor Janet Wardell-Herburgh. It meant that they had to ‘Barrage Off’ (contest a tie-breaker) to decide the eventual Gold Medallist.

 

“It came down to the last hit…..It was close, but Janet took out the Gold,” Marion says.

 

“That was big news when I won the Silver. The Australian Team didn’t really expect to Medal anything. I can remember the administrators saying: ‘Oh, my goodness….Well done….That’s fantastic…’ “

 

But there was another silver lining for Marion. When the Scots, as the host nation, put on a reception for all the Fencers, she met – and found love with – Richard Gray, a young Northern Irelander who was to win a Bronze Medal in the Teams event …….

 

 

 

***

 

Marion was selected in the five-member Australian Fencing squad for the 1972 Olympics, and headed to Munich as part of a 168-strong contingent.

 

She could hardly have visualised what lay ahead.

 

In the second week of the Games, two members of the Israeli team were killed, and nine others taken hostage, by the Palestinian terrorist group, Black September.

 

A pall hung over the Games, which would eternally be labelled the ‘Munich Massacre.’

 

“It was a bit scary,” Marion recalls. “You couldn’t help getting caught up in it. Some people became quite hysterical. These days they’d close the village down, but they kept it open. I can remember actually going for a meal and seeing the terrorists, with guns strapped on their backs, walking on top of a nearby building.”

 

“One of the guys we were fencing against got killed…..It was kind of like a car crash at the end of your street…….You hear about it…….but you don’t think it will affect you….”

 

The Games were halted for a day, and the terrorists escaped in a helicopter. Things slowly returned to normal……….

 

“Munich was a wonderful experience…….All these sporting legends, like Shane Gould and Raelene Boyle, you’ve read about and admired……they’re part of your team.”

 

“We’d wear our fencing shoes out and take them along to Nike to get them repaired……They’d want to charge me….”

 

“So you’d buddy up with one of the big names and go in with them…They’d say: ‘Oh, can you repair my friend’s shoes as well.’……’Oh yes, no worries…..’ “

 

Marion says that Australian Fencers felt they were always punching above their weight when it came to competing in the Olympics.

 

 

 

The world’s top Fencers come from places like France, Italy, Hungary and Poland where it’s been a traditional sport since the late-19th century.

 

“They’re on a different level to us……and they have very fiery temperaments.”

 

“They say your first Olympics is about figuring out where you are and what you’re doing……..I was just 20, a bit overwhelmed by the whole procedure, and had a different coach………”

 

“I won two and lost three matches in my pool in the first round, so I didn’t move on to the next round…….”

 

***

 

In 1971, Marion was re-united with Richard Gray when he re-located to Australia and worked here for three years. They married, then headed overseas, to enable Richard to complete the Bar exams in England, which would enable him to practice Law.

 

Marion worked in a laboratory, performing research with electron microscopes.

 

In the meantime, Fencing had been withdrawn from the Commonwealth Games program and, in its place, the Commonwealth Fencing Championships were held in Ottawa in 1974.

 

As she was living overseas, the Australian Fencing Federation wouldn’t consider her for selection. Instead, along with Richard, she competed for Northern Ireland and won a Silver Medal in the Individual Foil event.

 

“The Australians were a bit flabbergasted…….I had officials asking if I’d fence for Australia at the next Olympics,” she said.

 

When they returned to Australia to settle down, they decided they’d had enough of living in big cities. Richard corresponded with a number of Victorian country Law practitioners and received a few job offers, eventually becoming a partner in the Chisholm Street Law firm – Campagna, Gray and Mallinder.

 

“Wangaratta seemed a big enough, and nice enough, town to settle in, so we planted our roots here in 1977. We haven’t regretted it, even though, in an ideal world, you’d like to live a bit closer to Melbourne.”

 

The tyranny of distance, though, meant that they had to pull the pin on their respective Fencing careers.

 

“ It was time to do the things that normal people do. I missed the competitive aspect of Fencing……I hate losing……I always thought that if you didn’t do your best every time, and didn’t get enough points, it might count against you.”

 

“Richard, on the other hand, often missed out on finals because he’d take pity on someone who didn’t deserve it.”

 

“Instead, we took up basketball, skiied ( both water and cross-country), hiked and bush-walked…….that is, until my knees and hips gave way………” Marion says.

 

***

 

Like all of us, she’s apprehensive about how the Olympics will pan out.

 

“I’m not much of a spectator, but I do really enjoy good sport, and love seeing the Aussies do well,” she says.

 

“With no crowds it will be tough on the competitors…….Athletes will fly in, do their event, then fly out again……The whole Games will be about the Telecast….”

 

But watching on, Marion will no doubt reflect on that day when, as a 20 year-old, she made her Olympic debut in the Green and Gold……….

 

 

This story appeared first on KB Hill’s website On Reflection and is used here with permission. All photos sourced from KB Hill’s resources unless otherwise acknowledged.

 

To read more of KB Hill’s great stories, click HERE.

 

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Comments

  1. What a gracious and humble lady! Another cracker, KB!

  2. Peter Fuller says

    KB, Wonderful story and worth drawing our attention to a fine sportswomen (certainly unknown to me, prior to this reading).

  3. Daryl Schramm says

    Lovely story. Enjoyable read. There are probably many other Olympians who are ‘forgotten’.

  4. Nicole Kelly says

    This is a fabulous story – thank you! Having grown up in Wangaratta, I found it incredibly interesting. She seems like such a humble lady.

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