Thursday, September 23, 2010

Delhi Games to unveil future greats

The skinny Aboriginal runner had nothing in common with the pair of precocious teen swimmers.

But three of Australia's greatest sporting careers were forever linked by announcing their presence at a Commonwealth Games.

Cathy Freeman and Kieran Perkins were both aged 16 and unknown to the larger sporting world when they competed at the 1990 Auckland Games. Susie O'Neill was a year younger.

Freeman won a gold medal as part of Australia's 4x100m relay team; Perkins a silver in an event soon to become his own, the 1500m freestyle; while O'Neill collected a gold in the 4x100m freestyle.

The trio's path to greatness began at an event renowned for unearthing the next crop of sporting heroes.

Some 20 years after Freeman, Perkins and O'Neill arrived on the international scene, Australians will get a glimpse of their sporting future in New Delhi.

Many Australian athletes head for the October 3-14 Games in the Indian capital in relative obscurity; some will return celebrated.

Among the youngest Australians predicted to make a splash in Delhi is swimmer Yolane Kukla.

Kukla qualified for the Games team when aged 14 years and 175 days - a week older than the legendary Ian Thorpe was when he first made an Australian team.

Kukla will be 15 when racing in Delhi in the butterfly discipline made famous in Australia by O'Neill.

Like Kukla, O'Neill was a 15-year-old when at her first Commonwealth Games in 1990 and recalls the feeling well.

O'Neill has fond memories of competing on an Australian team which included her high jumping school teacher, Deanne Bopf.

"I remember a massive case full of new clothes and uniform, it was really exciting back then," O'Neill says.

"I was a little bit nervous about being away with people I didn't know really well ... but there was definitely more excitement.

"There was no pressure, no one was expecting anything from me, and I remember all the older ones ... looking after me and it was just fun.

"When you are younger, you don't realise as much. I was more nervous towards the end of my career than back then, because you are sort of oblivious to what it really means when you're young."

Kukla won Delhi Games selection along with young teammates Jayden Hadler and Katie Goldman.

Hadler, 16, is a decorated Queenslander whose talents have long been lauded at underaged competitions, while 17-year-old Goldman has taken the road less travelled in swimming.

The university student, trained by Grant Hackett's former coach Dennis Cotterill, stunned herself by cutting 11 seconds from her personal best to win the 800m freestyle at the trials for Delhi.

In track and field, an emerging batch of Australians hope to make a mark in Delhi alongside some of the biggest names in the game.

Olympic and world champion pole vaulter Steve Hooker, 28, and silver medallist hurdler Sally Pearson, 24, aim to build on their success at the Beijing Olympics.

Below them, the next wave of athletes includes pole vaulter Liz Parnov, whose father Alex coaches Hooker.

Parnov's sister Vicky competed at the 2006 Commonwealth Games while her aunt, Tatiana Grigorieva, won a silver pole vault medal at the 2000 Sydney Olympics.

Shooter Laetisha Scanlan is another young gun with her sights on gold in Delhi after recent stunning performances.

The 20-year-old Victorian has set a new Australian record in the women's trap in early September - and just one shot shy of the world record.

In the boxing ring, Australia is pinning gold medal hopes on indigenous 18-year-old middleweight Damien Hooper.

Hooper, from Dalby, 200km west of Brisbane, has been hailed a special talent by Australian Institute of Sport assistant boxing coach Don Abnett.

"Damien is a very good chance of a medal probably our best chance, despite his age," Abnett said.

"Anything is possible with Damien, he is very talented and like a lot of indigenous fighters has an awkward but unique style."

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