Sport has been described as war without weapons. Of course, that’s a gross exaggeration – a fact that George Orwell, the British author to whom the comment is usually attributed, understood better than most.
But there’s no denying sport can place incredible demands on its participants. Sometimes, these demands can come in the form of a fierce and intimidating opponent, such as when Muhammed Ali faced George Foreman in the ‘Rumble in the Jungle’.
At other times, the ‘enemy’ can be the conditions, perhaps extreme heat at the Australian Open, or the thin air faced by Olympians at Mexico City.
Sport has been described as war without weapons
Or the ‘enemy’ can be one’s own body, where the spirit may be strong, but must compete against straining muscles, grinding joints and creaking bones.
We take a look at some Australian examples of people who have overcome incredible physical challenges in order to succeed.
RUGBY LEAGUE: Trevor Gillmeister, State of Origin 3, 1995
The Superleague ‘war’ meant some great players were unavailable during the ’95 Origin series, but that didn’t prevent a ripper contest. Going into the third and deciding game at Lang Park, Queensland needed a big game from their journeyman second-rower Trevor Gillmeister. Trouble was, “the Axe” was in hospital with a serious knee-related blood infection. But what’s a bit of septicaemia when Origin is on the line? Gillmeister played a key role, laying several crunching tackles and picking a stoush with NSW hard man Paul Harragon. Job done, Gillmeister returned to hospital and went straight onto a drip. Legend has it that before the match, he told coach Paul Vautin he might die if he took the field. “But what a way to go,” Vautin responded.
LONG-DISTANCE SWIMMING: Susie Moroney, English Channel, 1990
The Aussie legendary swimmer has notched up several achievements that could fall into the category of ‘brave’ or ‘courageous’. We’ve plumped for her English Channel crossing in 1990, given it was her first famous effort and that she was aged just 15. Heavy fog delayed the start of the swim. When she did get going, the Cronulla-born youngster set a cracking pace before easing into a steady tempo, eventually completing the crossing in eight hours and 29 minutes. Moroney went on to complete a return-swim across the Channel, as well as completing crossings from Cuba to Florida, Cuba to Jamaica, and Cuba to Mexico, among other efforts.
AUSTRALIAN FOOTBALL: Dermott Brereton, 1989 VFL Grand Final, MCG
Hawthorn’s blond centre-half-forward was as courageous as he was brutal and he needed all of it in the 1989 Grand Final against Geelong. Brereton was a massive threat to the Cats and Geelong hard man Mark Yeates clearly opted to fight fire with fire. At the opening bounce, Yeates came straight off his wing and flattened the Hawk with a brutal hip-and-shoulder. Wheezing, gasping for breath and clearly in immense distress, Brereton ignored directions to leave the ground from both the team doctor and physiotherapist. Incredibly, he struggled his way into a forward pocket, recovering enough to grab a mark and kick Hawthorn’s first goal. Coach Allan Jeans, who gave his protege a spray before the game, sent out a one-word message via the runner: “inspirational”.
TEST CRICKET: Dean Jones, Tied Test, Chennai (Madras), 1986
Jones hadn’t played Test cricket for more than two years and had achieved nothing of note at international level. Coming in at number 3, Jones batted for more than 500 minutes, scoring a double century in appalling heat and humidity. The Victorian vomited repeatedly and even lost bladder control. At one stage, he told his batting partner, skipper Allan Border, that he wanted to come off. The grumpy Border taunted him, suggesting the team would be better off with Greg Ritchie at the crease. He batted on, passing the double century mark before being bowled by spinner Yadav. Jones was sent straight to hospital and placed on a saline drip. In the course of his innings, he lost four kilos, but the effort was worth it, with the Aussies securing a tie in one of Test cricket’s most dramatic finishes.
TEST CRICKET: Rick McCosker, Centenary Test, MCG, 1977
In the days before helmets became popular, it is remarkable more batsmen weren’t seriously hurt. Rick McCosker broke his jaw while attempting a hook shot off English quick Bob Willis. McCosker was expected to play no further role in the game. However, with England working their way through the Aussie lower order, the NSW batsman returned to the crease, his jaw held together with a bandage. McCosker scored a useful 25 and even hooked a bouncer from John Lever to the fence. More importantly, he hung around long enough to see Rod Marsh through to a century and get the Aussies to a match-winning lead.
EQUESTRIAN: Bill Roycroft, Rome Olympics, 1960
The cross-country rider was badly injured after being thrown from his horse, but climbed back on the horse to finish the cross country section. After being given oxygen and a swig of whiskey, he was flown to hospital by helicopter. That wasn’t the end of the story though, as Australia still needed a third rider to complete the event. The hospital doctors refused to let him leave, but relented so long as they were cleared of any responsibility. Roycroft was incredibly stiff and his teammates had to help him dress, but the 45-year-old rode a clear round on Our Solo in the jumps section, getting Australia to its first equestrian Olympic gold. Roycroft had to be lifted from his horse, but said he concentrated so hard he never felt pain. “Afterwards, the happiness of the result overwhelmed the pain,” he said. Roycroft went on to compete in four more Olympics.
SWIMMING: Grant Hackett, 1500 metres, 2004 Athens’ Olympics
Hackett’s personal troubles in recent years have been well-documented, so one can overlook just what an outstanding swimmer he was in his prime. Defending the title he won in Sydney four years earlier, Hackett faced strong challenges from younger competitors David Davies and Larsen Jensen, but the biggest challenge was a partially-collapsed lung. Not surprisingly, his form going into the final was mixed. He claimed silver in the 400m behind Ian Thorpe, but then struggled in the individual 200m and the 4×200m relay. But Hackett was made of stern stuff and when the time came to defend his title, he not only won gold but set a world record time for good measure (14 minutes 43.40 seconds). “My lungs were so blocked and stuffed for so long that it was partially deflated and there was fluid in there – it was fairly serious,” he told Channel Seven weeks after the event. Coach Denis Cotterell said his charge lost up to “25 per cent” of his lung capacity at Athens, but they didn’t tell medical staff in case they refused Hackett the right to compete.