Women of Wendouree
The history of women and the Wendouree Amateur Athletic Club seems to be very closely linked to that of women's athletics in Ballarat. Club photos of the 1953/54 season are the first to show women to be represented among the numbers who competed for Wendouree. However the Kevin Ruddick book, Always Striving - The Ballarat Harriers First 100 Years, notes that a Ballarat Harriers Women's Club was formed in September 1952 to compete against a Wendouree team and also mentions the Harriers women winning the premiership of 1953. Whatever the chronology, what is for certain is that Wendouree was at the forefront of the development of women's athletics in Ballarat and continued to be so until the unification of the sport for both men and women in 1979.
Initially the women competed at the same venue as the men, Ballarat High School, doing a limited number of events and definitely no longer distance running. In the absence of any documented listing, those who are thought to be among the original members for Wendouree include Lorna Gudgeon, Janet Gudgeon, Dulcie Hoffman, Val Greaves, Janet Greaves, Janet Saunders, Pat Dalton, Doris Pollock, Miss Veal and Miss Beale. The establishment of women's athletics in Ballarat coincided, perhaps not unremarkably, with Australia's golden age in the sport. Marjorie Jackson and Shirley Strickland and later Betty Cuthbert and Marlene Matthews would have provided the inspiration for many that took up the sport during this time. By deduction the Wendouree women's team must have been relatively successful in these early years. The Harriers' 1953 Premiership is cited as being their only one and, there being only two teams, it follows that Wendouree must have been successful on the other occasions. What is known for sure is that the Ballarat Harriers Women's Club was not to survive into the 1960's and consequently the Wendouree women were to have to look to themselves for ongoing competition.
For the 1960 /61 season the women sought to adopt a sister club in Melbourne through the Victorian Women Amateur Athletic Association (V.W.A.A.A.) to host competition opportunities for each other. A sister club relationship was struck with the Brunswick Women's Athletic Club and in January 1961 a picnic meet is recorded as being held for the visiting Brunswick team. Colac, Box Hill and Skipton are also places that the women travelled to for competition in the early 60's.
Training and regular competition of some form did continue locally for the women members although it seems no longer on the same day as the men. In 1962 information and rules regarding the staging of a cross-country season was investigated. A program of events was initiated in conjunction with the men with a relay from Ballarat to Scarsdale being included. The 1962/63 track season saw the women form two teams to compete against each other during the summer. Despite essentially having to provide their own competition the Wendouree women's team remained quite strong. Leading athletes included Rosalie Dow who went on to represent Victoria as a sprinter, Carmel Rushbrook, a jumper / sprinter who competed at state level, Judy Knight, a distance runner who was selected to compete at the Australian championships as well as Bev Dalton, Joy Mortimer, Alma Knight and Lucy Bath. The club also won the Victorian Country Championship teams title in 1961 and again in 1963.
In April 1963 the women moved to form their own club. The men pledged their full cooperation for the establishment of the suggested Wendouree Women's Amateur Athletic Club. When it came into being the club was named Ballarat Wendouree Women's Athletic Club. Betty Travers was instrumental in the formation of the club with Myra Conroy, Anne O'Callaghan and Dulcie Brooke also among those involved in the administration of the newly founded club.
For a couple of seasons events were held on the oval behind the Ballarat Girls High School in Barkly Street before moving to the Wendouree reserve. While the No. 1 oval was used for a season, the No. 2 oval became established as the venue for the club's competition through to the mid 1970's. Evidence of the autonomy of the women's club from the men's club by this time was that they accessed separate rooms on the reserve. For a number of years the track had to be marked with lime every Friday before competition. Eventually, after considerable lobbying, the council agreed to burn the lane markings permanently onto the oval each season. Competition was still conducted on a two-team basis with an aggregate perpetual trophy, the Donald Shield, being the reward at the end of the season for the winning team. The teams are thought to have initially been called Strickland and Cuthbert - later to become Kilboume, although press reports of the early 1970's refer to the teams simply as Ballarat and Wendouree.
A change of competition day from Saturday to Sunday assisted the conduct of the program with men including Col Dobbin, Bill Anderson, Harry O'Callaghan and Lindsay Hustwaite able to act as officials. However Lorna Opie recalls having to go up and turn the taps off about 11:00pm on Saturday nights when the trots were on at the adjoining showgrounds otherwise the track would be flooded.
Competitions at Horsham, Stawell, Dimboola and Chelsea were highlights on the club's calendar while regular competition against other country centres in Melbourne also became established for the club's better athletes. Interestingly newspaper coverage of one such competition, the Wimmera Amateur Athletic Championships, during the late 60's report names such as Ralph Doubell, Ron Clarke, Peter Norman and Pam Kilbourne, Olympians and Olympic medallists, among the competitors.
The number of members grew steadily through the sixties and into the seventies as the Ballarat Wendouree Women's Athletic Club created interest from many female athletes and their families. The competition was very strong and very even with up to 150 members from Under 11 to open taking part in competition. During this time many fine athletes competed with the club including Glenda and Marilyn Hustwaite, Ann Shannon (sprinting), Elizabeth Travers (jumps), Kay Thurlow, Janet Mann (throws), Elizabeth Mann (hurdles) and Celestine Conroy (javelin).
The most outstanding athlete to emerge was undoubtedly Sandra Opie, a very talented sprinter. Sandra Opie's natural ability was apparent from an early age. As a junior in club competition she regularly broke and re-broke records over the sprint distances, often recording times faster than those of much older athletes. In 1969, at the age of fourteen, Sandra became the first Ballarat female athlete to win a Victorian track and field championship running 12.8 and 26.7 respectively to win the Under 15 100m and 200m at Royal Park in Melbourne. She also went on to set a new Victorian Record of 26.5 seconds for the 200m in winning the Victorian Country title later in the season where she was also to be awarded the Australia Day Medal for her performances. Sandra continued to claim titles and set records in the seasons to follow, equaling the country record for Under 16 100m in 1970, and in later years, as Sandra Griffin and having started a family, continued to be one the club's most outstanding athletes. A spin-off of Sandra's participation in the sport was the strong interest and involvement of her parents, Lorna and Geoff Opie. Both became an integral part of the Ballarat Wendouree Women's club, Lorna in an administrative role and as an official, and Geoff in providing coaching guidance.
For many, the Victorian Country Championships was the pinnacle event of the season and for the club it was a chance to measure itself against the other regional based clubs. In 1973 Ballarat Wendouree was defeated for the aggregate trophy by just 2 points. The following year the club broke an eleven-year drought when it won the team title at the Victorian Country Championship at Alberfeldie. Sandra Opie and Dianne Murray both won doubles with Sandra establishing a Country Record for the 200m, 25.0 seconds, and being awarded the Australia Day Medal for the second time.
Competition conducted by the then V.W.A.A.A. was done in a very official and very efficient manner. Championships were ran with all heats, semis and finals of events held on the one day. Rules were strictly adhered to. This included no jewellery (wedding bands were taped over) and padded bras were not allowed as it was considered to provide an advantage when dipping for the line. Margaret Murray and Lorna Opie were two of the club's leading officials and went on to achieve the rank of Field Referee and Track Referee respectively.
In 1976, despite opposition from some quarters of the male orientated Ballarat Regional Centre, the women transferred competition to Llanberris. With the unification of men's and women's associations at higher levels the Ballarat Wendouree Women's Athletic Club amalgamated with the men's club in 1978.
While for many years Ballarat Wendouree had been the only women's club in Ballarat the other clubs also formed women's teams around this time, in some cases drawing athletes from the Ballarat Wendouree Club to establish a team.
The amalgamation process was not necessarily all smooth sailing and it was a couple of years before the cultures of the two clubs were fully integrated to form the basis of the Wendouree Athletic Club as it has evolved today.
The formation of other women's teams also meant a new competition environment. On the track Wendouree initially had a strong team that included Gail Bridges, Sandra Griffin, Marie Moore, Gillian Dobbin, Chris Murnane and Megan McLean however the quirks of the competition structure and scoring system played some part in denying the club any premierships in these years. It was to be not until the season of 1986/87 that Wendouree was to claim its first women's A-Grade Premiership. The club then went on to follow it up with repeat successes in 1987/88 and 1988/89. In these years Wendouree boasted a wealth of talented female athletes across almost all events. Cathie Morcom - who still holds many of the club's distance records and remains the only senior female Wendouree athlete to win Ballarat cross-country titles, Sharon Schnyder, Megan Cahill, Lindy Cahill, Deborah Cotter and Belinda Jakiel were some of the athletes that contributed to those successes. These were to be Wendouree's only A-Grade premierships although it has managed others in lower grades and junior competition since then. Throughout this period Christine McLennan, Michelle Hawkes (nee Davis) and Catherine Ratcliffe have carried the banner for the club even assisting the men's teams to some success. The development of the club in junior ranks has been most promising in recent seasons and bodes well for the women of Wendouree again challenging for glory on the track in the seasons ahead.
Finally, it would be remiss not to make mention of the achievements of arguably the club's most outstanding female athlete Sharon Schnyder (nee Loveless). There is no question that dedication and application are essential qualities required to achieve in the discipline of race walking and that Sharon Schnyder exemplifies such characteristics. A competitor with Wendouree since a junior, Sharon has set Ballarat records, won Victorian Country titles as well as being successful at Victorian Championship level and has represented Australia in international competition. She was a member of premiership teams with the men, has been one of the club's leading distance runners and was actively involved in the formation of the Ballarat Walker's Club to assist the development of the sport in the area.