In Australian sport there are few events as iconic as the Stawell Gift. Since 1878, there have only been four years that the race has not been held in the small country Victorian town.
The Gift, run on a grass track over 120 metres and offering a massive $40,000 to the winner, is the undisputed Holy Grail of professional sprinting in this country. The final is also relayed live to an audience in more than 40 countries making it one of Australia’s most watched sporting events.
Winners of the event are cloaked in immortality, which is why thousands have tried but only just over 120 have succeeded in having their name painted in gold on the honour roll.
The latest name to be added is 20-year-old Tasmanian university student Andrew Robinson, who held off a strong field on Easter Monday to join the sport’s elite.
Educated at Launceston’s Scotch Oakburn College – where he now works part-time as a Learning Support Teacher’s Aide while studying for his degree in early childhood education– Robinson accepts his athletics life will be very different now that he has Stawell Gift Champion tacked on to the end of his moniker.
“It is something that really will change my life,” he said.
“It has been surreal (since winning) and I am still trying to come to grips with everything.”
Robinson has been running since he was five years old – starting out like many young children in Little Athletics – and joined the professional ranks in 2008 while still at school.
His goal in the 2012-13 season was, initially, to target the 400 m Devonport Gift after previously winning at Latrobe and Keilor.
When that was achieved in December his attention was drawn to Burnie – one of the country’s most prestigious 120 metre professional events held on New Year’s Day in North-West Tasmania – where he was happy to make the semis, given the race was won by his training mate Jacob Despard.
Robinson said post-Burnie he and coach Ray Quarrell, who used to race against Robinson’s father, began to think about Stawell with an initial plan of making the semis. Making the final become a “hopeful” goal particularly as Robinson began to turn in training times which suggested he would be in the mix.
When Robinson qualified for the final at Stawell he knew there was still a mountain to climb. Back marker and 2011 winner Mitchell Williams-Swain had already broken 12 seconds from his mark of 4.5 metres, 2.75 metres behind Robinson. A time under 12 seconds for the journey puts any Stawell runner in the frame.
Williams-Swain – the out and out favourite – started before the gun was fired in the final and was penalised a metre, making his task that much harder.
Robinson and Quarrell had put together a fairly simple plan for the final as they talked in the training rooms away from the crowd following the semis.
“Ray said to make sure I nailed the start and be prepared for the back markers to come after me over the last 30 metres,” Robinson recalled.
“He said I had to drive towards the line… and kick like a mule.”
Robinson did all that to hold off Williams-Swain and become the first Tasmanian to win the event for more than 70 years in a time of 12.01 secs. The sheer volume of congratulatory calls and comments has taken Robinson by surprise.
“All the support has been unbelievable. I have had telephone calls form past winners and people have been leaving messages on Facebook.”
Robinson said he was looking forward to being able to use his elevated profile to give back to the sport he loved and was keen to accept many of the invitations now coming his way.
“It will be a bit of a juggling act (with study and work and training commitments) but I am looking forward to being able to give back to Tasmanian athletics.”
Robinson said he was sure his support network of family, training mates and friends would keep him grounded. His professional handicap over 120 metres will now be cut back to around 3.25 metres, making it much harder for him to win similar events in the future.
Robinson is likely to turn some of his attention to running on the track in events which may help gain the eye of national selectors.
He will also keep trying to win Stawell one more time.
“I will be going back for the rest of my life. It is such a great place.”