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Mentor, winner, role model

ABOVE: (l-r) Tom Hancock, Rhiannah Woods, Alyssa Luland and James Bertalli. Image: Geoff Helisma.

Tom Hancock, 81, is Australia’s top masters’ ‘throws pentathlon’ athlete: sweeping all before him, he won seven gold medals, and when the throws pentathlon was assessed he was 800 points clear of his nearest rivals.
Hancock was competing at the Australian Masters Athletics Championships in Darwin (June 9 to 12) where he won gold in the 80 to 85-year-old division for high jump, throws pentathlon, and the javelin, hammer, shot, discus and weight throws.
The big prize, however, was the Joyce Foley Award for the highest male point score in the throws pentathlon, which is assessed across all age divisions from 30 and upwards.
“You have to do your best to get the score, you can’t just win,” Hancock says. “For instance, when I did the javelin throw I threw 31metres, but the nearest to me was 17metres [in his age division] … you can’t get a good score by throwing it 18metres and just winning.
“My score was 4,400; the nearest to me in any age group was 3,600 points.
“My name goes on the perpetual trophy and they gave me [the crystal Joyce Foley Award].”
Hancock says this matter-of-factly; after all he has been competing since he was a boy and, as a level 5 coach, has mentored some of Australia’s top throws athletes, including eight-time Australian discus champion and 1994 Commonwealth Games gold medal winner Werner Reiterer – Hancock was named Australian coach of the year as a result.
But the real Tom Hancock story is not about what he has won, it’s not about the framed medals that adorn some of his Maclean home’s walls – it’s about what he does when he’s not competing.
Last week at Wherrett Park in Maclean, Hancock was doing what really makes him tick: coaching and mentoring three young athletes: Rhiannah Woods, 14, Alyssa Luland, 15, and James Bertalli, 18.
As he focused on each athlete, the personal bonds he has with them were evident. Standing back and observing each throw, after some hands-on adjustments to their techniques, Hancock’s body language was as one with his charges – willing them to improve or succeed with each effort.


Parents were there, too, busily assisting, measuring or keeping a record of the athletes’ progress.
Several years ago, Hancock arrived at training and called his athletes over to his car. He opened the boot and it was full of framed medals he had won over the years. “He requested we each choose one or two to keep as a memento,” says Jaslyn Smith, who has since moved to Brisbane for work.
“He said his wall was full and he wanted us to have a special gift that would inspire us. It was cool to have a prize from our role model to keep forever.”
Rhiannah Woods’ mother, Richelle Staveley, says that her daughter has gained a lot of confidence under Hancock’s mentoring over several years, “in all of her skills, not just the athletics, but the social side of it as well”.
“I don’t know, it’s just fun I guess,” Rhiannah says. “It’s good when you achieve greater than you already have because, well, you’re getting better.
“I am feeling more confident in myself that I can do it.”
Jo Luland, who has two daughters training with Hancock, says, “You can tell at their carnivals that they are one up on their competition because they have correct techniques and guidance.”
“Yeah totally,” says Richelle. “It boosts their confidence heaps, they are able to go up to total strangers and be friendly.”
“They have friends from all over the place … they meet people in their own age divisions along the way,” says Jo. “They only see each other maybe twice a year, but they make friends and socialise together.”
“And without Tom they wouldn’t make it to Sydney, and they make it there every year,” says Richelle.
James Bertalli, 18, who has completed high school, is a para-athlete who has Paralympics aspirations.
“I found out he had coached a lot of para-athletes to the Paralympics,” he says. “Before I found Tom, my form wasn’t really good and I wasn’t reaching my potential.
“Once I started coming to Tom, he picked up all of these little things I didn’t really know I was doing … he is correcting it and helping me to reach my potential.
“I’ve had cerebral palsy since I was born, all down my left side, and I’ve just been determined to not let that beat me.
“Athletics is one of those things where I can strive.”
Alyssa Luland has made it to the state championships each of the past four years and says it’s “something I would never have achieved without Tom’s coaching and guidance”.
“[He] sets us higher and higher goals. His belief in our ability helps us to strive [to] achieve the best we can. At the end of last season, Tom set me a massive goal to throw a discus over 30 metres.
“I did it, and now I can consistently throw that distance, the first female athlete in Tom’s squad to do so – a great achievement for us both.”
The beauty of what Tom Hancock does is not what his students achieve competitively, but how they improve themselves as a result of his mentoring. The reality is that when they finish school they don’t usually continue competing, but they carry a legacy of sorts, one informed by the experience of working towards personal excellence, appreciating each goal achieved and putting what they have learned into practice.
“My motivation is to see them succeed at state level,” Hancock says. “They go to Sydney and get a big thrill going into the Olympic stadium, where they compete against these big Sydney high schools that have pro coaches.
“They have lots of comps, which we don’t, but we still do pretty well against them and, on occasion, we have won NSW titles and medals.
“That’s very satisfying for me and the kids.”